Thursday, 25 February 2010

Cannonball Read 12: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

I am aware I have not posted in a rather long time. The reasons are not particularly interesting. I do have several reviews in note-form scattered around the place that I've neglected to type up. I was inspired the other day, however, as I conversed with a friend. He told me that he enjoyed reading my reviews and noticed I hadn't updated in a while. Then he said "Shame on you". Shame? SHAME? So I am here now, head lowered, bottom lip quivering, hoping that The Internet can forgive me. Also, I would like to dedicate this angry little review to you, B.V. Keep it Scandinavian, homie.

There are two basic points I would like to convey in the following review. The first is that G.K Chesterton is a fantastic writer. The second is that I hated this book. It's a deep, seething and maniacal hatred that I will carry to my grave.

The Man Who Was Thursday begins as a spy novel set in turn-of-the-century London. Gabriel Syme, a member of a secret anti-anarchist task force, infiltrates the Central Council of Anarchists with the intention of thwarting their plans of destruction and general mayhem.(Chesterton's anarchists would more accurately be described as nihilists) Consisting of seven men, each member of the council is named after a day of the week. Syme is elected as Thursday and attends his first meeting where he develops a bizarre admiration - as well as fear - of the council's leader, Sunday.

Though it's opening is straightforward and strongly written the novel becomes increasingly predictable and repetitive as it progresses. Midway through the reader is left to speculate if Chesterton has, in fact, written a farce. The reader hangs on, expecting there will be a payoff. Spoiler alert: there is not. The conclusion is a baffling mess of pretentious religious symbolism.

The novel was recommended to me by a friend who asserted that, despite his issues with the narrative, the writing was strong enough to carry him through. Well, the writing carried me through the first half. Frustration, blind rage and a three hour layover in Oslo carried me through the second.

So, as it may have already been made obvious, The Man That Was Thursday left a bad taste in my mouth. Despite my blatant hatred of the book, however, I would be interested in reading more of Chesterton's work. Someday. Maybe.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Cannonball Read 11: How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

James Kelman is one of Scotland's most celebrated authors. Born in Glasgow in 1946, Kelman grew up between Govan and Drumchapel in the city's tenements and housing schemes. From the outset Kelman has written in the distinctive working class Glaswegian language that he grew up with. His first collection of short stories was published in the 1970s. In 1989 Kelman's novel A Disaffection was published, receiving wide praise throughout the United Kingdom. But it wasn't until 1994, amid a sea of controversy, that Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize, propelling him more into a world of infamy than fame and literary recognition. Panned by a handful of critics, one of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, went so far as to dismiss the novel as "crap" and threatened to resign if it were to win. Additionally, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian described Kelman as an "illiterate savage". Having been briefed on the controversy prior to reading the novel, I opened its pages to try and understand how Kelman's work had reduced the United Kingdom's literary elite to the intellectual level of the comments section of a youtube video.

How Late It Was, How Late
tells the story of Sammy Samuels, a 38 year old Glaswegian, ex-convict and shoplifter. Sammy finds himself in jail after a two day drinking binge, with no memory of the last few days. All he can remember is a fight with his girlfriend and a handful of characters he met with prior to blacking out. Beaten by the police, he wakes up blind and, eventually, is sent out into the world.

Written in the first person, this stream of consciousness novel is immediately involving. Despite the grim subject matter the core of the novel possesses a fundamental optimism that transcends the bleakness of the protagonist's many harrowing experiences. The rich description and authentic Glasgow patter vividly brings to life the chaotic and uncertain world our protagonist is thrust into. In fact the novel is as close to experiencing Glasgow as one can get without actually visiting. It brings to life the red sand stone mazes of tenements cluttered throughout the city's streets, the musty pubs, the clinking of pint glasses, the smell of rolled cigarettes chained smoked by old men.

All praise aside, I can appreciate that not everyone would enjoy this novel. Many may very well find the protagonist to be a frustrating and unsympathetic character. To a lesser degree, readers unfamiliar with Glasgow patter may find the language inaccessible. Be that as it may, I struggle to understand how the novel could have incurred such ire at the time of its publication. Kelman accomplishes exactly what he sets out to accomplish. An obviously gifted writer, evoking shades of Kafka, this wonderful novel creates a world all of its own. It is engrossing, brutal and authentic.

In response to the negative criticism flatulated in Kelman's direction the author responded by stating, "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether." Too fuckin' right, big man. Criticism of any and all works of art is not only acceptable, but essential. But in the case of Kelman's novel one cannot help but deduce the negative attitudes come from dim witted elites, flabby intellectuals and pathetic effete swine whose only desire is to keep the literary world to themselves and far from the grubby clutches of the untamed masses.

But it is all irrelevant. As Werner Herzog once put it, "I'm not out to win prizes - that's for dogs and horses."

From Govan, with love


Thursday, 31 December 2009

Cannonball Read 10: Full of Life by John Fante

John Fante has long been one of my favourite authors. Virtually unknown throughout his life, Fante's work began to gain popularity in the 1970s when Black Sparrow Press republished his out-of-print work at the suggestion of Charles Bukowski. Subsequently, Fante's reputation slowly grew over the years and currently enjoys both critical acclaim and a significant cult following.

Ask The Dust, from Fante's Bandini Saga*, is his most famous novel (a fantastic review here). Similar to Dreams from Bunker Hill, the final Bandini book, both tell the story of a young writer, hot blooded, alone and impulsive, trying to make sense of himself in Los Angeles. As marvelous as these writings are, I have always enjoyed the semi-autobiographical stories that detailed Fante's life and relationship with his family. Two of my favourite Fante novels include The Brotherhood of the Grape and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The latter - to my knowledge his only novel written in the third person - introduces us to Fante as Bandini, the young son of Italian parents, born into poverty in Colorado. The former sees Fante returning home as a man. Both explore the tense relationships he shared with his excessively devout and overly dramatic mother, as well as with his tough and cantankerous father. Truly the byproduct of both parents, Fante's novels span over decades examining these three characters, all of them bewildered by their differences, yet almost comically unaware of their similarities.

Full of Life is more overtly autobiographical than Fante's other works, as he dispenses with alter egos altogether. The novel opens on John Fante, a man of modest success, home owner, and father to be. One day Fante's very pregnant wife, Joyce, falls through the termite-infested first floor. Though she is unharmed, the Fantes find the price of repairs to be out of their means. As a result, Fante travels from Los Angeles to northern California to request his father's professional expertise. Initially enthusiastic at the notion, Fante quickly finds himself regretting his decision once arrived at his parents' home. The story then centres around Fante being forced to deal with his self pitying father's faux stoicism, as well as his hormonal wife.

Less agonizing and much lighter than the bulk of Fante's work, this is by no means his best novel. It may be his funniest, however. While it is not recommended to Fante newcomers, anyone who has any experience with the Bandini's will delight at this small wonder.

*In the United Kingdom a collection of Fante's novels have been published in recent years under the name "The Bandini Quartet". They include Wait Until Spring, Bandini; The Road To Los Angeles; Ask The Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill. It is worth noting that The Road To Los Angeles was published posthumously. There is a reason for this: it's bad. Skip it and return to it only once you've completed the TRILOGY. It is not essential. In fact, check out The Wine of Youth instead, a collection of shorts that includes stories based on events written about in The Road To Los Angeles. Who takes care of you? I do, that's who. Happy New Year, sexy. Yeah, you.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cannonball Read 9: Another Country by James Baldwin

James Baldwin's Another Country is a sprawling novel that details the lives of a group of musicians, writers and artists in 1950's Greenwich Village. Thrown right into a cold New York City night, the story begins with urgency, as we follow the young Rufus Scott wandering the dark city streets, broke and broken. Baldwin immediately draws the reader in, setting us on a bumpy and often harrowing path exploring interracial relationships, extramarital affairs, bisexuality, as well as self delusion and its consequences.

Baldwin began writing the novel in Greenwich Village in 1948. He completed it on a kitchen counter in Istanbul in 1962. From Paris he had traveled to Turkey, arriving in poor health, depressed, and feeling that he had lost sight of his aims as a writer. Carrying with him an "unpublishable manuscript" that was "ruining his life", Baldwin claimed the characters simply wouldn't speak to him. On the brink of suicide, his novel had literally almost killed him. Taken care of by friends, away from his tempestuous life and relationships, he managed to conclude his 14 years of torment.

Reading Another Country is a frustrating experience. It is, rather understandably, uneven. The first third of the novel is its strongest, ranking with some of the best writing I have ever read. As a whole, however, it is muddled, and even infuriating in its failure to live up to its full potential. Often brutally honest in its exploration of relationships, willful ignorance and jealousy, it remains an intense and uncomfortably familiar read. In fact, I found myself completely obsessed with it when I was reading it, but almost felt it too heavy an emotional burden to pick up again after several hours away from it. It is the first time I have had such an intense and turbulent relationship with a book. I feel entirely serious (and quite ridiculous) stating that I had an almost romantic relationship with it. I love it despite it's flaws and feel quite terrible pointing them out publicly.

An imperfect work, yes, this may nonetheless be the most important literary discovery I've made in years. I hope others may value Baldwin's work as I have. Whether they do or not, I very much look forward to reading every word he has ever had published.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


Deistbrawler and Eyvi Sprite, put your machetes away, cancel your flights, for I have survived. I am currently holed up in a small French village outside of Paris with an internet connection and the best Whiskey money can buy. You're more than welcome to stop by.

I found myself in a tiny airport on the outskirts of Stockholm's outskirts. I slept on steel tables, I fought drunken Vikings for scraps of bread, I glugged moonshine at the security gates and wrote a novella with an albino at dawn.

I spent several hours in Oslo airport as well. Norway is the way forward. Stockholm and Sweden are fantastic, but Oslo airport's book selection! I expected a good deal of Knut Hamsun, as he's local. But their small English language selection was better than all of Glasgow's libraries combined. Bukowski, Nabokov, Bret Easton Ellis, Murakami, Camus, Kundera and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few. I felt inclined to move there based on the airport shop's collection alone. But I was informed that that was not a good enough reason to relocate and start life anew. Perhaps not. This is not the first time my impulsive tendencies have been brought into question. As it happens, "So I can watch the whales on the beach" is not a good enough response to the question, "Why is it you want to move to Nova Scotia?". Nonsense. It's as good a reason as any.

So here I am, "sharing" on line. I hope everyone is well.

Okay, this is impulsive. I don't believe in lists, I don't believe in awards. It's crass and pointless. But I still really enjoy them. I don't have the time or the energy to sit around and compile my favourite films of the Aughts, in general or in specific genres. So here is a list of my five favourite cinematic actors of the Aughts. If you don't like it, make your own damn list.

5. Ryan Gosling

4. Vera Farmiga

3. Idris Elba

2. Patricia Clarkson

1. Peter Dinklage

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Let The Right One Out

Dear Sweden,

Please let me leave. It's cold and dark and I can only buy 3.5% beer. I am very impressed with your snow storms, your rich culture and beautiful women. But I am cold. And I have not slept. And I want to go home. I have Cannonballin' to do and these little fingers are struggling to type.

Also, RyanAir is the worst thing to come out of Ireland since Bono.

Dear Readers,

If I have shown no signs of life by Wednesday, avenge death.



Monday, 30 November 2009

Cannonball Read 8: Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews Edited by Mac Montandon

I couldn't have been more than twelve years old when I first heard Tom Waits. I was watching MTV late one night when, from under a table in a dingy diner, a man appeared with a tiny guitar in his hands and belted out a song. I had no idea who this person was, or where he'd come from, but I was transfixed. Months passed and I sat up waiting, hoping to see the video again, a blank VHS ready in the machine. Finally, one night, the song came back on. I lunged towards the VCR and hit record. Immediately after the song ended I plugged the RCA chords that lead from the VCR into the tape deck and transferred the song onto an audio cassette.

The song was "I Don't Want To Grow Up", and it was unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I wanted to know more. I scoured the local record outlet for more of the man's work. The album that I wanted, Bone Machine, was too expensive. I searched through tens of modestly priced albums from the 70's and 80's with no idea where to start. Eventually, I settled on Rain Dogs, and, upon listening, was left confused and a little frightened at this eclectic mix of noise, beauty and brilliance. My musical tastes had been limited to the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth on the one hand, and Ice Cube and Wu Tang on the other. Already, these two genres were socially incompatible in my school. It was rock or Hip Hop. That was it. Angry, depressed and suffering the onset of puberty, I knew not which to chose, and rather resented the notion that a choice was necessary. Now I had Waits to contend with as well.

No one I knew had heard of this man. I kept him to myself and accumulated more of his albums as the years passed. I began noticing his songs increasingly being featured in cinema, popping up at the end credits of strange films I would come across on cable stations late at night. As the years drew on a few people I met started recognizing his name, though he was usually only referred to as the "guy with the gravelly voice". No one else got it. My mother even declared "Anybody that sings like that would just get laughed off stage" as I played "Dirt In The Ground" solemnly in my room. I did not care, the lyrics were as good as lyrics got.

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews is certainly not a book that will appeal to non-Waits fans. In fact, while it is an enjoyable insight into the man, it's hardly required reading for his fans either. The most interesting thing about Waits has always been his music. I still got a kick out of a lot of it. It's interesting to see the perceptions of journalists change over the years as Waits' grows from scruffy outcast to cult icon. The change in Waits' approach to interviews is even more drastic, as he evolves from a young artist spinning wild yarns about his past, to a husband and father with a decidedly more direct and, increasingly, political outlook. Nonetheless, he still insists on meeting journalists miles away from the secret location of his home, often in greasy spoon diners, or unfashionable Chinese restaurants.

This started as a mistake. I recently traveled down to London and, on Sunday, found myself alone in a friend's flat. I picked this book off of the shelf, flicked through the first few pages and, about 4 hours later, put it down and fell asleep. I had no plans on reviewing it but, in the end, could not resist writing a few paragraphs about this man whose music has been such a huge part of my life for the last sixteen years.

EDIT*************** Just deal with it.