Thursday, June 30, 2011

Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories by Joseph Mitchell (Vintage Books 1992)

"At Mardi Gras, which falls on the two days before Lent, the big stores and companies in Port-of-Spain give prizes of rum and money to the Calypsonian who improvises the best song about their merchandise. In 1916, with the African Millionaires in back of me, I entered the advertising competitions and won seven in one day, singing extemporaneously against men like Senior Inventor and the Lord Executor. I collected the big prize from the Angostura Bitters people and the big prize from the Royal Extra Stout brewery people, and all like that. In those competitions you have to improvise a song on the spur of the moment, and it has to be in perfect time with the band. You must be inspired to do so.

"That night, in a tent, I had a war with some old Calypsonians. A tent is a bamboo shack with a palm roof. The Calypsonians sing in them during carnival and charge admission. A war is where three Calypsonians stand up on the platform in a tent and improvise in verse. One man begins in verse, telling about ugly faces and impure morals of the other two. Then the next man picks up the song and proceeds with it. On and on it goes. If you falter when it comes your turn, you don't dare call yourself a Calypsonian. Most war songs are made up of insults. You give out your insults, and then the next man insults you. The man who gives out the biggest insults is the winner. I was so insulting in my first war the other men congratulated me. Since then I maintain my prestige and integrity as Houdini the Calypsonian. I got a brain that ticks like a clock. I can sing at any moment on any matter. If you say to me, 'Sing a song about that gentleman over there,' I swallow once and do so."

From 'Houdini's Picnic' (1939)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Kick-Ass (2010)

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle (Ecco Books 2007)

Rich had had a much less tragedy-free life. We needn't go into the details, since it's a long, sad and ultimately unoriginal story, but as a result Rich had developed a coping mechanism by which all of the terrible things that happened to him were merely wacky complications that would, before the movie of his life was over, be resolved in an audience-pleasing happy ending. He occasionally worried his life might be an independent film, or worse, a Swedish flick, but he chose to behave as if the movie he lived was a raucous teen comedy and he was somebody like Ferris Bueller or Otter from Animal House, or, worst-case scenario, that guy who fucked a pie.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty (Penguin Books 1980)

'Ah, Brother Sebastian. I was expecting you.'

Michael began, the words becoming slurred in his haste to get them out before his courage failed him.

'Brother Benedict, I must protest in the strongest possible terms about the . . . the thrashing you have just given Owen Kane.'

'And why is that?'

'He did not sign his name to any slogan.'

'Brother Sebastian, I'll thank you to calm yourself.'

'Did you say that the boy signed his initials to some graffiti?'

'I did.'

'O.K. is a slogan itself. They just add it to things.'

Brother Benedict took off his glasses, folded the legs flat and rubbed into the corners of his eyes with finger and thumb.

'Brother Sebastian, do you think I'm a fool? Credit me with a little lore intelligence.'

Michael did not know how to react. He was confused.

'You know and I know,' said Brother Benedict, 'that we could never find the real culprit. By now the boys know that punishment has been meted out. Someone has got it in the neck. It may deter others from doing the like again, for fear their mates get it. The O.K. is just a little irony of mine. "Benny dies O.K." Now the boys know that Benny has risen.' He bunched his big fist and swung it in a slow punch, clicking his tongue at the supposed moment of impact.

'K.O.,' he said with satisfaction.

For the next week Owen had to try and clean the slogan off with a pad of steel wool. To reach it he had to stand on a stool.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel (Abacus 1999)

'What about you? Still at the paper?'

'Not really. I'm a features editor at Jack.' That figures, thought Vic. Jack was a late addition to the FHM, Loaded, Maxim, aren't-we-the-naughty-ones magazine market, it specialised in covering topics too shallow for its competitors. On the odd occasion Vic had read one of them (not often: Vic hated stuff that aspired to, but wasn't, pornography), he'd recognised more than one byline from his days of contact with the music press, men who in their twenties would've been politically incorrect to be rebellious, and who now had to be politically incorrect to be rebellious, instead of realising that the dignified thing to do is stop being rebellious. 'Although I still do odd bits and pieces for the. Can I help it if I still bloody love rock and roll?

It was at that point that Vic remembered just how cunty Chris Moore was. He wasn't just a cunt. He was off the cuntometer.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Vintage Books 1968)

"How I loathe that bastard," Gunvald Larsson muttered suddenly.


"I'll tell you something I've never said to anyone else," Gunvald Larsson confided. "I feel sorry for nearly everyone we meet in this job. They're just a lot of scum who wish they'd never been born. It's not their fault that everything goes to hell and they don't understand why. It's types like this one who wreck their lives. Smug swine who think only of their money and their houses and their families and their so-called status. Who think they can order others about merely because they happen to be better off. There are thousands of such people and most of them are not so stupid that they strangle Portuguese whores. And that's why we never get at them. We only see their victims. This guy's an exception."

"Hm, maybe you're right," Rönn said.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Orwell Remembered by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick

A bit of a departure from the usual business of cutting and pasting a paragraph to give you a flavour of the book just read.

As it's Orwell, and as it's a book given over to reminiscences, I've decided to cut and paste three passages which give you both a sense of the book and of the man . . . and of where I'm coming from now that I come to think about it.

And that was typical of him. I remember his comment when I told him of an experience of mine in the early 1920s. In those days the Communist Party enjoyed very little prestige in England and was still affiliated to the Labour Party. One day I was at a Labour Club in north London and someone said: 'You must meet our Communist poet.' I was then introduced to a dishevelled looking man whose name, to my astonishment, I recognised as that of a distinguished member of the Symbolist group. When I told Orwell about this many years later he said: 'Ah, but in those days, you see, it didn't pay to be a Communist; and it's a pretty safe rule to say about anything that as long as it doesn't pay it's all right.' Justice, in other words, is always with the weaker side because it does not pay to join it. But he certainly sometimes carried the principle to absurd lengths, and this aspect of him was wittily described by Mr V. S. Pritchett in an account of how Orwell once advised him that he ought to keep goats. The chief point being, so Mr Pritchett gathered, that it would put him to a lot of trouble and he would be certain to lose a lot of money; and Orwell got quite carried away with enthusiasm as he expounded the 'alluring disadvantages' of the scheme.

(Sir Richard Rees, pages 120-121)

Let this point be made clear: Orwell did cope with the baby. It may have been romanticism, but, if so, it was romanticism that found practical expression. This was characteristic of him in all he did. His idiosyncrasies were based in guts.

He would still go out at night to address protest meetings - 'probably a blackguard, but it was unjust to lock him up' - and the baby would be left to sleep for an hour or two at our house while Orwell was haranguing his audience.

'What was the meeting like?' one would ask on his return.

'Oh, the usual people.'

'Always the same?'

'There must be about two hundred of them altogether. They go round to everything of this sort. About forty or fifty turned up tonight, which is quite good.'

This down-to-earth scepticism, seasoned with a dash of self-dramatisation, supplied a contradictory element in Orwell's character. With all his honesty and ability to face disagreeable facts, there was always about him, too, the air of acting a part . . .

(Anthony Powell, page 245)

While he was attacking the bullies on the right he nearly starved to death. Once he turned to the bullies on the left, the right having been temporarily beaten, he made his fortune. This was due to no lack of integrity on his part. For he never fell for Communism for a moment although he was more deeply concerned with social justice than most men, and more unselfishly so than some. It had cost him plenty in the thirties and on the left to be so uncompromisingly anti-Communist, yet he liked reading Trotsky and even more reading Rosa Luxemburg. For all his masculineness the fact that it was a woman who had such a good mind, a better one than Lenin's, did attract him.

As for the British anarchists and near-anarchists, vegetarians and sex reformers, he found them the most disappointing of all. As they never had the slightest chance of getting into power anyway he thought that they might as well have stuck to their principles, whereas all they seemed to do was get bogged down in the mess of their doctrines. About their principles, they chopped and changed, like a Christian Brother on a debating platform with a lot of non-conformists. He loved Bartolomeo Vanzetti, however, as much as I do; whose hands were smelly with the smell of the fish he peddled, but to whom all the poor of the whole world were what Beatrice was to that great Florentine, his countryman. Because of him, Piedmont can stand unashamed in front of Tuscany. At the trial of the anarchists during the war, the British judge, Sir Norman Birkett, as he then was, behaved better in his role than did the prisoners in the dock in theirs, which of course was a better role.

(Paul Potts, pages 253-254)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Man On The Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Vintage Crime 1967)

He thought too of the swift gangsterisation of this society, which in the last resort must be a product of himself and of the other people who lived in it and had a share in its creation. He thought of the rapid technical expansion that the police force had undergone merely during the last year; despite this, crime always seemed to be one step ahead. He thought of the new investigation methods and the computers, which could mean that this particular criminal might be caught within a few hours, and also what little consolation these excellent technical inventions had to offer the women he had just left, for example. Or himself. Or the set-faced men who had now gathered around the little body in the bushes between the rocks and the red paling.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Vintage Contemporaries 2008)

We traveled the length of Coney Island Avenue, that low-slung, scruffily commercial thoroughfare that stands in almost surreal contrast to the tranquil residential blocks it traverses, a shoddily bustling strip of vehicles double-parked in front of gas stations, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons, bank branches, restaurants, funeral homes, auto-body shops, supermarkets, assorted small businesses proclaiming provenances from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Armenia, Ghana, the Jewry, Christendom, Islam: it was on Coney Island Avenue, on a subsequent occasion, that Chuck and I came upon a bunch of South African Jews, in full sectarian regalia, watching televised cricket with a couple of Rastafarians in the front office of a Pakistan-run lumberyard. This miscellany was initially undetectable by me. It was Chuck, over the course of subsequent instructional drives, who pointed everything out to me and made me see something of the real Brooklyn, as he called it.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Mystery Man by Bateman (Headline 2009)

This is all quite new to me, so I am not above seeking wiser counsel. When that isn't available I occasionally consult my assistant Jeff. I would say that he works for me Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it would be more accurate to state that he appears in the store twice a week and manages to spend most of that time on the phone calling disinterested parties on behalf of the local chapter of Amnesty International. Jeff has been rather subdued since the death of General Pinochet. Human rights violations under his regime had been Jeff's area of expertise, but now that the General was gone, the spotlight had shifted on to more recent abuses in the Middle East, leaving him marginalised. He had committed the cardinal sin of failing to move with the bleeding-heart-liberal times, he was yesterday's man clinging to the vain hope that someone even more despotic would come to power in Santiago and rescue him from his do-gooding isolation. I thought drawing him into helping me with the case might rescue him from his doldrums in a way that my humming of 'Don't Cry for Mr, Chile' every time I passed him hadn't.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Inspector Ghote's Brooklyn Mystery

Who knew so many people in our apartment building took notice of my withering two line book reviews on the blog?

Eleven days and counting and 'Inspector Ghote Caught in Meshes' is still sitting all alone in the lobby of our apartment building. The book briefly disappeared from view on day two but the anonymous wannabe book lover put it back in place on the mantelpiece a few hours later and it's been there ever since.

At this point, I'm too embarrassed to even acknowledge its existence. I'm guessing I'll have to set the alarm for the middle of the night, don suitable clothing, and take a train out to Long Island with a shovel, some quicklime and a bag of quick-setting cement.

Alternatively, I could 'recover it' - wearing the aforementioned clothing - bung it on book swap and secure that signed copy of The Fountainhead that I've always wanted.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (Penguin Books 1934)

Aunt Dahlia's face grew darker. Hunting, if indulged in regularly over a period of years, is a pastime that seldom fails to lend a fairly deepish tinge to the patient's complexion, and her best friends could not have denied that even at normal times the relative's map tended a little towards the crushed strawberry. But never had I seen it take on so pronounced a richness as now. She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.