Monday, 16 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#4]

A trio of books this time.

We begin with two anti-memoirs, both essential insights into the torturous practice of life writing. I say ‘torturous’ since I am currently bleeding my heart-rending adolescence onto the page in the noble pursuit of a decent grade. One person who turned her childhood into profit is Janice Galloway in her 2008 anti-memoir
This is Not About Me.

As the title indicates, this is a book about familial ties and the endless desire to sever them. Galloway takes a conventional childhood in Saltcoats, Ayrshire – absent father, weak-willed mother, domineering sister – and transforms these laboured ideas into original and vital prose, crackling with tension, magic, insight and eye-popping characterisation.

Galloway’s novels have always been ludicrously compelling once inside, if somewhat difficult to pitch to the reader. So instead of flailing around like an octopus on speed attempting to explain what makes this a winner, I’ll say this: it’s special. Banalities become bravura. Boredom becomes brilliance. The humdrum becomes a humdinger. And so on. I recommend this for those seeking to be converted to the (anti-)memoir.

Next up is John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father. This is recommended for those seeking the quintessential evil father memoir. The father in this case is an alcoholic, a deadbeat and a Scottish hardman who mistreats his wife and son. The son (the author) then goes on a rebellious rampage of alcohol, sex and drugs. This culminates in a long spate of mental illness.

Uplifting? No. However, Burnside utilises a very poetic and compelling turn of phrase throughout, which lifts the antics from the potential whirlpool of navelgazing. He has a remarkable tale to tell and – because he can actually write with some profundity and wisdom – wipes the floor with the exploitative "misery memoir" market.

Lastly is Raymond Queneau’s comic novel
Zazie in the Metro. This short whimsical novel from the Parisian polymath (and co-founder of the Oulipo) isn’t representative of his phenomenal talent, but is a tittersome romp through a cinematic Paris of the 1950s with the acid-tongued Zazie the charming misfit at its core.

The humour was, for its time, subversive, with its foul-mouthed heroine, the consistent references to ‘homossesuality’ and the playfully childish words spelled phonetically throughout the text. There is no plot as such, minus Zazie’s persistent dissatisfaction at being unable to ride the metro, but Queneau uses witty dialogue and crackling comic prose to keep us entertained.

This novel rightfully takes its place in the canon of classic comic works with the efforts of Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis and Douggie Adams, and has been adapted into a cult French film and a comic strip. So there.


  1. Very well written synopsis of three diverse and, from your reviews of them, potentially interesting reads.

  2. Thanks! I hope these books are attainable stateside.