Thursday, 29 July 2010

Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

(Yes, that is the American hardback cover. I bought it in a wholly gigantic second-hand bookshop in New York last year, figuring I should have something American to read on the ‘plane home. Only as it turned out I didn’t get round to reading it until a few weeks ago.)

Michael Chabon is probably my favourite American author these days, mostly for the obvious reason that he writes brilliant books. Wonder Boys is both hilarious and capable of stirring the soul in a way that few tales of tubby middle-aged wasters can manage. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes that most wearisome of genres – ‘wide-angled view of America in the twentieth century’ - and makes it hearty, sorrowful, original, and fun. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union plays the same trick with detective stories, and then adds Yiddish, which is pretty much always a good thing. And as for The Final Solution, you have to be pretty special to get away with a pun about the Holocaust; even more so when it’s in the book’s title.

But I won’t turn this into a general survey of Chabon’s ouevre (although I’ll add that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is worth a look, and not just for the theory about Born to Run being a staunchly Catholic album; and his short stories aren’t half bad either). The point of mentioning some of the other books is to note Chabon’s willingness to muck about with genre, from the comic books in Kavalier and Clay, to Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s pointing out that there was more to Chandler than a few murders and some wisecracking. Gentlemen of the Road, then, is a love letter to adventure, a swords-and-sandals romp involving elephants, disguises, fighting and trickery. Rarely have I seen a book enjoying itself so much.

Monday, 26 July 2010

On the advantages and traditions of running a small autocratic principality

It’s always worth planning how things are going to work once you’re the benevolent dictator of an isolated tropical island paradise. After all, you never know how things will turn out. Many’s the wandering gun-toting imperialist or amoral son of an ex-prime minister who’s accidentally found themselves engaged in a violent military coup. It could happen to any of us.

So, on the basis that one day I might be sat in a pillared, porticoed palace, being fanned with palm leaves and being adored by a grateful or population of tax-evaders, retired banditos, war criminals and accountants for all of the above (oh, and feared and despised by the actual locals, but since when have they been high in the concerns of imperalist missions?), I thought I’d attempt to nail down some of the basics of my pseudo-tyrannical regime.

Examining assorted repressive political foulnesses, I have decided that what I’m really going to need are some slightly loopy laws about artistic expression. So, in an effort to make sure my personal empire at least has some jolly decent books, I have begun some planning.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Jasper Fforde: Shades of Grey

On the verge of taking over the world with Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime series, Jasper Fforde has wandered off and come up with something entirely different: Shades of Grey, a futuristic, dystopian comedy that’s roughly a  cross between Brave New World and Jennings. With giant swans.

It deserves praise for sheer perversity, but it’s pretty decent, too. Not, sadly, as brilliantly clever as some of the Thursday Nexts or as absurdly amusing as the Nursery Crimes, but solid, unique and interesting in its own right.

In a mysteriously battered Britain populated by peculiar beasties (giant swans, ground sloths and the wonderful bouncing goats) and scattered with remnants of war, vision is no longer quite so multicoloured as we’re used to. Everyone is born with a limited capacity to see colour, and their chromatic ability determines their place in society, from the snooty yellows to the grey underclass. Eddie Russett is a red who’s sent to East Carmine, a small town on the fringes of the wilderness, for humility realignment, but he’s soon involved in mysteries and rebellion as he starts to uncover the sinister undertones of the colourtocracy.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Beasties from the deep

You know how the internet is full of strange things? Well, here’s another to add to the list: win snazzy books by describing a cephalopod. Liking both authors (although I already own and have read Kraken – review coming soon), I reckoned I might as well give it a shot. In scribbling an entry I ended up with a few spare scraps of tiny stories about squishy fishy things, and here they are, mostly discarded because I couldn't cut them down to the word limit. Didn't win, but it was a fun little exercise. 

Friday, 16 July 2010

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Part of my brain is convinced that I’ve read more Italo Calvino than I actually have. In reality, until now, I’ve nipped through only Our Ancestors and The Path to Spiders’ Nests. This, whether measured in pages or as a proportion of Calvino’s bibliography, is naff all. But somehow, perhaps because of his tremendous reputation, perhaps because of how much I adored Our Ancestors (didn’t think so much of The Path to Spiders’ Nests – I’m only occasionally drawn in by war books), I feel like I’m a fan, a serious reader, someonw who knows what’s going down with this Calvino chap.

This is, of course, nonsense. He’s written masses of stuff, packed wth cleverness, and I’ve had a quick, unanalytical read of a couple of minor works. So to try to do something about this, I decided to check out Invisible Cities. It’s supermodel-skinny by novel standards (it’s been sat next to Cryptonomicon on my bookshelf, which is a bit like parking a mini next to a tank), but it’s one of those books that crops up all over the place.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for this.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Booking for the Booker

Summer can be a painful time of waiting, with little to do but frolic in the sun, drink things with umbrellas in and burn meat outdoors, all while awaiting the onset of Autumn and the longed-for unveiling of the Booker Prize shortlist. Sorry, the Man Booker Prize – it's been sponsored by an entire gender as a reaction against the rampant sexism of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Actually, I just checked that one, and actually it's now the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Presumably this means future awards will go to whichever book makes the best use of Youtube clips, iPlayer extracts, copyright infringement, pornography, and any other valid uses of broadband.

Anyway, for those who are in anguish awaiting the Booker results, I have good news: this year’s shortlist (because a whole longlist would be far too much like hard work) now consists entirely of books that don't exist (after all, it is a prize for fiction), and here they are:

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Salman Rushdie: Fury

The thing about Salman Rushdie, beyond fatwahs, personal life, literary awards and all tht jazz, is that he’s really, really good. He has this magnificent meandering prose, a talent for mythologising, enough oddness to fascinate and enough realism to drag you in.

You know, each time you crack open one of his books, that you’re going to get stories within stories that seem filled with as much emotion, laughter and symbolism as the whole of some other novels. You know that there will be some magic realist loopiness underlying the whole affair, accentuating the flaws and personalities of the characters, bringing them to what feels like more than life. You know, most of all, that you’re going to look quite clever reading it on the Tube.

And that’s one of the weird things: he has a reputation for being difficult, serious, obtuse - literary with a pretentious capital ‘l’. Yet he isn’t. Okay, he’s not exactly monosyllabic, and if you lose yourself in the middle of a sentence you might not find yourself again for a week, but this completely ignores that he’s basically rather good fun. There is activity, surprise, wit, and a sense of playing with the reader and the language. He simply does not write dull sentences, and a large part of me thinks that this, more than character, theme or plot, or is a writer’s real job.

With that in mind, I came to Fury

Monday, 5 July 2010

Telling lies about David Bowie

David Bowie is a mystic shaman of rock and roll, and his believers stretch far, wide and weird. I'm fairly convinced that at least one popular music magazine is contractually obliged to include one Bowie-based headline pun in each issue. Possibly they'll only be allowed to stop when they've covered his entire back catalogue, which could take a while. 

I realised I was a Bowie convert when I first heard Starman and discovered that I already knew most of the words. Some might say this is because my parents played it a lot while I was small, but I prefer to believe that Bowie’s songs are so mighty they can become embedded in our souls without us even hearing them. 

So, in an attempt to understand the creative process behind these life-transforming slabs of snazziness, here's some entirely made up research into some Bowie classics.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

Since it is World Cup season (Wimbledon wouldn't be so uncouth as to try to claim itself a whole season), I decided I needed to learn to understand what this football business is all about, so, like any right-thinking library-dweller, I turned to Terry Pratchett for advice, and picked up Unseen Academicals. It was certainly more fun than watching the England matches. As the back of the book helpfully points out:
'The thing about football - the most important thing about football - is that it is never just about football.'
And of course, the thing about the Discworld is that it’s never just about the Discworld. In the course of thirty-seven novels (and shedloads of associated bumph) the series has gone from being a loose collection of jokes about fantasy to being one of the most reliable, well-intentioned and consistently entertaining sources of satire since Rory Bremner went angry.