Thursday, 30 August 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Aug)

This month I tried to focus on my Dickens obsession, but a series of comedy books and obscurios distracted me, plus tackling the Twin Towers of David Copperfield and Bleak House was an intimidating prospect. I started a Ulysses reading group in a Glasgowshire alehouse, and planned to read the novel over four months with folkinos, but Ulysses being so darned captivating I ended up reading the whole thing in five days. More on that tomorrow. Reviews pasted from Goodreads.

1. Charles Dickens — David Copperfield

Finished. Having a hard time spinning superlatives for this review. It is more or less established I strongly like, or passionately love, every Dickens novel I read so why not slap a five-star badge on this masterpiece and hop down to Bev’s café for a veggie burger, free sexual innuendo with every purchase, a fly in every milkshake, and a 50p discount on all half-cooked omelettes? Fine. Some highlights. Improvements in characterisation. Notably, the villains. David’s friendship with Steerforth partially blinds the reader to his scoundrelly tendencies until his flitting with sweet Emily. Uriah Heep’s squirminess and umbleness wrongfoots the reader until his scoundrelly tendencies are unmasked (although David outs him as a beast from the start). The first-person narrator opens doors of eloquence in Dickens’s prose hitherto closed in the topographical omniscience of previous works. As usual, a memorable cast of eccentrics, stoics, loveable fuck-ups and social climbers. No sagging secondary plots like in Dombey and Son. Deeply moving passages on the passing of time, memory, penitence, friendship and naïve love (Dora is a female Peter Pan). High-class comedy a-go-go. An enriching experience. Your soul glows reading this. You want more from a book? Geddouttahere. Time for that veggie burger. Open til nine and never over capacity.

2. Agnes Owens — Bad Attitudes

Is it wrong to have a mental sweepstake as to which of my favourite elderly writers will pop their clogs first? Yes. But I have such a mental sweepstake at present and I can’t stop it. The four principals in the running were Gore Vidal (86), William H. Gass (88), Agnes Owens (86), and Alasdair Gray (77). Gore Vidal passed away last Tuesday, so as penance for this cruel mental sweepstake, I will read another of his novels this month. This isn’t much penance, because I was going to anyway, but hey ho. I have an unfortunate relationship with my favourite writers—usually I discover their work only a few years after their deaths. Gilbert Sorrentino, died 2006. I started reading him in 2009. Kurt Vonnegut, died 2007. I started (seriously) reading him in 2009. David Foster Wallace, died 2008. I started in 2010. Now there are the unfortunate cases when I’ve discovered writers, eagerly anticipate their work, and they silently pass away. Gilbert Adair, died 2011. I read all his novels in 2010. J.G Ballard, died 2009. I started to read him in 2008. I got into Christopher Hitchens a few months into his cancer diagnosis. Now, Mr. Vidal. I wish my favourite writers would stop dying. When I read Agnes Owens, for example, there’s a tension that this writer, who doesn’t live too far from me, might be expiring as I read her work. When I read William H Gass, I wonder will this be the last one I read while Gass is still alive? Should I read more Gass while he’s alive? If I complete the canon in the writers’ lifetime, is that somehow more psychically satisfying for both reader and writer? These are the questions. These two novellas are Owens’s last. But not her last fictions, yet.

3. Jane Bussmann — The Worst Date Ever

Jane Bussmann has contributed to some of the most challenging comedies of recent times—Chris Morris’s Brass Eye and Jam, along with other seminals The Friday Night Armistice and South Park. So it’s no surprise this book—blandly packaged as a screwball comedy—has the same unflinching bite and relentless bad-taste assault of her other handiworks. What the blurb doesn’t make clear is that this is a screwball comedy about Ugandan atrocities, particularly those by Joseph Kony—a charming lunatic responsible for the kidnap, enslavement, habitual rape, torture and murder of over 20,000 Ugandan girls. Yes, har har. Bussmann’s ‘inciting incident’ (as they say) is a crusade to quit her career as a showbiz hack in LA and her crush on hunky African Affairs director John Prendergast (clearly her attraction to this man is a narrative fabrication) and an attempt to become a Useful Person by reporting on the horrors for a UK broadsheet. The result is a mix of Candide and Mr Bean. An extremely funny, inappropriate, necessary book. Just don’t read it under a depression. Bussmann’s humour lifts no spirits, she only reinforces the pointless, cruel absurdity of existence, and there’s stuff in here so howlingly sick and unfair, you'll no doubt forget you were supposed to be laughing. But Bussmann’s real agenda is merely to get this story out to a wider audience, why not use comedy? The absolute bloodyminded brass of this woman is staggering. P.S. If you live in the UK and dislike Ugandan torture you might want to pass this petition on to your MP via this portal.

4. M. Hunter Hayes — Understanding Will Self

An entertaining rip through the Will Self canon. Half scholarly, half straightforward discussion and analysis. Will Self is the most prolific author in Britain at the moment. His ability to produce high quality work in ludicrously short amounts of time is nonpareil. How the Dead Live was partly written in a three-week fury in the Orkney Islands. Cock & Bull was written in another three-week fury in Spain (under the heroin influence). The man’s output is growing exponentially as I write this. By the time you read this, he will probably have written another 100 articles, a story collection and two novels. Is all this work worth reading? Nope. Is it always interesting and amusing and erudite and stuffed with deliciously recondite words like epiphenomenal or imbroglio? Yep. This short book makes a strong case for Self as a part-time postmoderist and metafictionist, his body of work as a roman-fleuve (one long work when all the novels/stories are stitched together, like Proust), and his intertextual cleverness. The Self style is highly musical, word-greedy and clinically inclined. Read him. Start with Cock & Bull.

5. The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files

I will treat this review simply as a place to promote Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, In the Loop, and the recent American remake Veep. There. Go watch them. This ‘missing file’ contains various snippets pertaining to the employees of most incompetent government department in the world, DoSac. Based on Labour’s recent decline into gibbering drooling madness, this is a mixture of gov-speak satire, ritual abuse from Malcolm Tucker, and fun extras from the BBC series. It is somewhat depressing we’ve come to expect incompetence and hypocrisy from our governments and that governments basically conform to our expectations, as though moulding themselves into the bastardy shapes we expect. No one in this country who isn’t rich likes the Prime Minister. Depressing. Fortunately, this collection of foul-mouthed missives provides erudite respite from one’s boiling rage. If there’s one thing you can rely on in Britain it’s savage mockery and contempt for our leaders.

6. Armando Iannucci — The Audacity of Hype

Iannucci’s book collects ‘columns’ he wrote for UK papers The Observer and The Telegraph between 2002-8. The focus here is on maximum silliness and exhaustive surreal humour over humorous articles. The silliness usually takes the form of lists and made-up panel show rounds—clearly Iannucci needed an outlet for this stuff since leaving The 99p Challenge and Charm Offensive (Radio 4 panel shows)—so the collection overall becomes tiresome and tends toward bathroom reading. His ‘proper’ articles are actually quite insightful and hilarious in their own right—more would have been welcome! Anywho, this is still better than most ‘humour’ books made in this country. While we’re here, here are my proposals for ten humour books Michael O’Mara might wish to publish:

1) World’s Funniest Teacosies
2) World’s Dumbest Mental Defectives
3) Spain’s Weirdest Paella Enthusiasts
4) Luxembourg’s Wackiest Hillocks
5) Kathleen Hanna’s Hairiest Militant Feminist Friends
6) Nicole Ritchie’s Cutest Poodle Turds
7) Michael O’Mara’s Smuggest Smirks At Getting Rich Pedalling Cheap Toilet Books
8) Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Craziest Ankle Socks
9) Elaine Kraf’s Oddest Bicycle Pump Retailer Polaroids
10) World’s Funniest Guide to Pulping ‘World’s Funniest Guide’ Books

(£111,999 advance, please).

7. Elaine Kraf — The Princess of 72nd Street

Another sparkling little novel plucked from 1970s small-press obscurity into latter-day small-press obscurity. The paradox with Dalkey reprints is that the books no one has ever heard of remain books no one has ever heard of . . . the difference being Dalkey keep them in print in the hope one day, some unshaven Scottish misanthrope might read them and plead for a wider readership for them on Goodreads. Has that been successful so far? Of the 110+ Dalkey books I’ve read, how many have gone viral on GR, passing from user to user with shrieks of admiration and clucks of wonderment? Um, none. Although my GR friends have read writers like Sorrentino, Queneau and Dowell and so on entirely of their own initiative, so who needs the middle-man? This short (and small-fonted) novel is a melancholy trip inside the claustrophic mind of an artist having a nervous breakdown or suffering from long-term manic-depression with hallucinatory spells. She retreats into her mind, creates an alter ego Esmeralda and turns her breakdowns or episodes into “radiances” where she imagines herself as the “Princess” of her neighbourhood. This destructive behaviour sends her into the arms of various self-obsessed male suitors, oblivious to her mental problems who use her for their own artistic, neurotic purposes. Since her suitors can’t see beyond themselves to the Princess’s pain, she remains trapped in her condition until a final, tragic episode binds them to her forever. A lyrical, funny novel, highly original with a scorching feminist undertone. Tell your friends.

8. Harry Blamires — The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses

Essential for the Ulysses neophyte, like me. Don’t attempt Ulysses without reading this alongside. Some people, understandably, won’t read books that require additional explanatory texts—Shakespeare, we all know, can be completely incomprehensible without the side-by-side notes, and no fun or spoiled when rendered in updated English—but this essential précis illuminates and 100% enhances one’s pleasure from the Ulysses experience. Fact. Most attention is paid to the extremely difficult chapters—Oxen of the Sun, Circe and Eumaeus—and often the summation barely matches up to the text, but The New Bloomsday Book is entirely necessary to comprehend the subtle, esoteric parody skillz Joyce is laying down (esp. in Oxen, perhaps the hardest overall chapter). Sadly, the book is out of print or merely expensive. An updated Idiot’s Guide is needed. Perhaps all us Ulysses lovers on GR can come together and write one? (And whittle it down to under 2000 pages?)

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