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142. Why on Hay…

142. Why on Hay…
May 2015 saw me return to my favourite book-hunting reserve, the incredible Hay-on-Wye literature festival, (or, as one comedian present put it, book festival. When challenged that it was actually a literature festival, he asked: “What’s the difference?!” No response was forthcoming…)
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Hay is possibly the largest festival of its kind in the world, and the place I fly to from anywhere in the world to spend two weeks in May any year which doesn’t contain a World Cup.
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I returned to my role as a smiling, ticket-ripping, joke-cracking, child-entertaining, direction-giving, little-sleeping, yellow-jacketed volunteer, and this year I did it whilst camping in a nearby field, to save money on the scarce accommodation in this tiny Welsh village. I have barely camped since I was an 11-year-old boy scout, and was amazed at the new-fangled tents they have invented which turn from the size of a plate into a rain-proof cocoon with the flick of a wrist: it always took us Boy Scouts three hours, several broken tent poles (stop snickering at the back…), and the tents rarely lasted the night. Aaaaahh, technology…
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Anyway, enough reminiscing! This is about BOOKS, and this year’s festival saw me take in 56 events from my privileged position, (from authors to comedians, from actors to musicians from around the world), save hundreds of pounds in entrance fees, and then spend most of those saved pounds in the festival bookshop, (where my bill was surprisingly under £200, thanks to both a propensity for paperbacks this year, and a staff discount).
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2015 was a year of anniversaries, and we were treated to talks on Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (200 years ago this year); the Battle of Agincourt, (a six-century old confrontation between Britain and France which gave us Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ and the famous British V-sign); and a guest appearance by one of the most important pieces of paper in world history, the eight-hundred-year-old Magna Carta, which restricted the powers of British Kings and was admired and adapted around the world, from France to the US Constitution.
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Old favourites are starting to become slightly too regular at Hay, (I was barely shaking when I met Stephen Fry again this year, and I’m starting to nod to journalist and book-machine Jon Ronson as if we’re old friends…although I’m pretty sure he is wondering why some strange guy keeps nodding at him), and the early days were just as much about the special events than the authors.
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Jude Law joining a host of actors to read from Unbound’s wonderful ‘Letters of Note‘ was a highlight, and I finally got to meet poet and comedian extraordinaire Tim Key, (aka Alan Partridge’s new sidekick), at a surreal last-minute comedy event which left the audience partly amused and mainly bemused).
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However, towards the end of the week came a day which could have been arranged just for me: after meeting Kazuo Ishiguro the day before, I had the joy of seeing two events each by two of my favourite authors, the ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman, (whom I later saw whilst invited briefly backstage to the Green Room and used my entire life-supply of willpower to not hassle: seriously, if you want to ask me to do anything, now is the time, I have zero willpower left), and my new Man Crush, David Mitchell.
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As if this wasn’t enough, Neil had brought along his heavily talented and equally heavily pregnant wife, Amanda Palmer, who was promoting her new book on ‘The Art Of Giving.‘ Her session featured several ukulele songs which actually brought me to tears not once but twice, first for its sadness, and in the very next song for its sheer joy.
(I almost cried again when I discovered after the talk that, not only was I sitting behind Mr.Gaiman, I had failed to realise that he was sitting next to Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour. Mainly because I didn’t know what he looked like).
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Promoting his new book ‘The Bone Clocks,’ David Mitchell gave a fascinating talk in the face of a less-than probing interview, eyes lighting up as he gave the most stirring description of the beauty of language I have ever heard from a writer. His evening event, a midnight reading of an as-yet-unpublished ghost story, (now very much published, ‘Slade House‘), was so late that it gave me and some fellow volunteers (and fans) the chance to monopolise him at the after-event signing, (as we were the only ones who hung around for it).
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We got to reminisce about life in Japan, and my new friend Hannah caused such jealousy with the dedication he had written in her book that we invented a new sport: Competitive Signing, (much approved of by his agent), which saw me buying extra copies which the incredibly affable author was happy to inventively deface for me.
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Take that, Hannah, with your one-line dedication…
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From popular philosophy to sports psychology, ‘young adult‘ fiction to Nobel Prize-winning economics, yet again Hay gave me a reason to lie awake in a freezing field at 4am and to take all the abuse an entitled retired soldier can throw at me for allowing another line to enter a venue thirty seconds before his.
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And, of course, I will be back in 2016…
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Some things I learned, some quotes I heard, and some ideas I wrote down for you at this year’s Festival:
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British National Treasure, new hipster-beard-wearer and philosopher AC Grayling‘s advice for being a good teacher: “Nothing beats the combo of ignorance and enthusiasm!”
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80 people own the same wealth as half of the world, and 1% of the population will own half of the world’s wealth by 2016.
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Classic British girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’ was named after the hugely successful kids’ author Jacqueline Wilson, who was the youngest contributor to it when it was founded.
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Colm Toibín’s stunning short story ‘Mary‘ on the Virgin after the death of her son was originally a play, but when it ended after a few weeks he wanted it to be more permanent.
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Kazuo Ishiguro used to believe that authors peaked in their mid 40’s, the literature equivalent of a football player dropping back to midfield, putting their foot on the ball and pointing a lot. Now he’s older, though, he’s not sure he agrees with the thesis…
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An unforgettable line from Jude Law, during a reading of the war-time letters of lovers from ‘My Dear Bessie‘:  “Ooooooh, I wish I were a brassiere…”
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Author, comedian and political genius Sandy Toksvig’s father used to refer to literary editing as ‘filleting’!
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Toksvig again on the democratic origins of the USA, the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620  by 41 men…on a boat of 110 people!!
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One more reminiscence from Sandy who informed an infatuated audience of 1,700 people that when at boarding school in Guildford, Surrey, students were allowed to go to the High Street everySaturday…but only to the left-hand side. No further details were provided…
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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks postulated that in Britain, we have removed nationalism as a relevant, acceptable sentiment since the wars, but not replaced it with anything, and hence religion has filled the vacuum. Who has managed to create a valid, modern British patriotism, he asks? Danny Boyle at the Olympic opening ceremony.
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In an early-morning, two-hour lecture on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I learned that the lovers share a sonnet in the scene when they first kiss: an alternating dance of lines entwining in poetry their sentiments, ending:
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Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take…
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Alice in Wonderland,’ one of my all-time favourites, was revealed to be a story shot through with one of the obsessions of the Victorian times: classifications. “What are you?” Alice is asked so often.
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The same talk yielded this wonderful quote: “They kept a family newspaper, as so many Victorian children did…”
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Cedric Vilani, a real-life French version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, informed his audience that acfordin tot he Wall Street Journal, in both 2009 and 2014 he worked in the number one job field in the world: mathematician.
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Neil Gaiman, promoting his gorgeous Sleeping Beauty sequel ‘The Sleeper And The Spindle,’ illustrated by Chris Riddell, brought the shocking news that not only was Cinderella originally a Chinese tale, (who else cared so much about foot size, as he points out?), it was only when it was imported to France that the original fur slipper, (made of ‘vair’), may have become glass (or ‘verre’).
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Resident comedian Marcus Brigstocke won my award for funniest and simultaneously most offensive comment of the Festival when he announced that “…Australia is just South Africa where the white people won… “
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Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond seemed relieved to be out of politics and to announce with brutal honesty, in response to a question of why British PM David Cameron gave in to so many of his referendum demands: “He’s no very bright… “
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(I also learned from this last day talk that in a referendum it is essential to be on the yes side:  people respond instinctively toto positivity, apparently. Although not quite enough to win Scotland independence.)
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Finally, one of my all-time favourite trivia facts was revealed by the clever elves behind BBC’s wonderful game show QI:  Noah’s ark didn’t actually contain two of all animals, but had seven of all clean (i.e. kosher) animals, and just two of the rest.
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If facts like that don’t make you want to join me next year, I am truly astonished that you made it to the end of this blog!
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Posted by on November 1, 2015 in BOOKS

 

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4. What I’ve been reading, this week…

4. What I’ve been reading, this week…

Book-Lovers,

So, after a week of reading all morning every day, (and usually most afternoons and evenings), I can finally begin using this blog for one of its main purposes: as a digital, communal ‘Book Diary,’ a place to record all of the books I’m reading and my thoughts on them/their effects on me.

(My Mum keeps a Book Diary, partly, I have a suspicion, to avoid reading the same book twice. Apparently it only works if you remember to write down everything you’ve read in it, as she discovered last night when 50 pages into ‘The Help’ which I’d lent her. After several, regularly timed cries of “This sounds familiar…” and “Hang on, have I read this before?…”, she realised that she had, indeed, read it before).

-Monday, 5/12/11

‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth’, Chris Ware

This is the debut ‘graphic novel’ (aka comic) from a guy who is now one of the most famous illustrators around, from what I can tell. This had been in my cupboard for only six months, but due to its mass, (it is a squat, thick, colourful book), it leapfrogged other books which have been patiently waiting their turn for years due to the fact that a) it is quite beautiful, meaning I wouldn’t want to trade it in once I finished it, b) it is quite heavy, meaning I wouldn’t want to drag it on my travels anyway, and c) being a comic, it looked like I could finish it quickly, and finishing books quickly gives me a buzz of achievements at the best of times, even when I don’t have a readership to impress and inform.

I was immediately disappointed. My brother and sister-in-law, better versed in graphic novels than I am, had shown disdain for him in the past, but I soon discovered why: whilst the sketch-style of illustrations appeals to me, this was the perfect example of style over substance, with a confusing, fairly dull storyline and a depressingly awkward main character. I have only ever given up on reading a book once in my life, (having both a stubborn streak, and a belief that I can learn at least as much about literature, and what I enjoy about it, from works that I dislike as those that I love), but I was tempted to add this to ‘Ulysses’ on the scrapheap.

I’m glad I didn’t, as the story did eventually improve. Specifically, the twin story-lines of a modern-day Nobody his and turn-of-the-last-century Chicago ancestors were at one point explicitly defined by the author in a ‘time out’ from the confusion, almost as if someone had test-read the book and, at this point, explained that they were lost, confused, slightly lonely, and didn’t want to read any further. The pathetic main character is put to one side for a long stretch to allow us to follow his grandfather’s depressing, but fascinating childhood (and abandonment) in Chicago at the time of the first World’s Fair, before the story ends focused back on the alienated modern day antihero and antiMidas, everything he touches turning to sh*t.

Funnily enough, last year I managed to find a copy of Voltaire‘s ‘Candide‘, a great fable from one of my favourite ever autorst, in a modern Penguin edition willustrated by Ware. I was horribly disappointed to find that he had only illsutrated the cover, (a miniature masterpiece, representing all of the characters and the entire story in the space of a fold-out flap jacket), but now I feel like I got the best of both worlds: the sketch-style, South Park’y illustrations I enjoy so much coupled with a timeless story.

(Incidentally, this leads me to another aside of why I even buy books, or why anyone does, for that matter, with things I’ve learned of recently called ‘libraries’ existing. I already have ‘Candide‘ on my shelf, albeit it in the original French, but I’m a sucker for a great cover, a beautiful edition, stunning binding, or special paper. This is something I think publishers have cottoned onto recently, with second-hand shops in the ascendancy, digital media freely available, and people wondering why they should spend their hard-stolen money on buying a real-life book. Personally, I’m a sucker for the rough-hewn, old skool folio thing many of them are doing with pages these days, making them smell even more incredible and book’y. You book-loving, page-sniffers know what I’m talking about.)

‘Black Like Me’, John Howard Griffin

This is one which has been nestled, hidden, in my ‘To-Read’ cupboard for over a year, finally unearthed in one of my regular, space-freeing rearrangements: a tiny, 1960’s copy of a book which I had heard about years ago and spent months searching for, finally tracking it down on a second-hand maket stall. The true story of a white journalist who, with the aid of pharmaceuticals and UV treatment, darkened his skin enough to wander the streets of the Deep South and pass himself off as an African American, (or Negro, as that is the term employed throughout the undercover exposé).

This was one of the most fascinating and terrifying books I have ever read: a man who, if caught in his investigations by those he is attempting to defend and promote, could have been the victim of insulted anger; and if caught by the racist whites he is attempting to expose and educate would certainly have been the victim either of the violence casually meted out to the second-class citizens if he kept his peace, or of violence springing from a sense of betrayal if he managed to convince them of his true colour.

The ultimate message of the story is a tragic inability to communicate, logic twisted by those convincing themselves that there can possibly be reason behind their racism, of two worlds which never come close to meeting. It was heartbreaking to think that this was not a fantasy world or distant past, but the status quo in the United States barely a generation ago, and more worryingly a sneaking suspicion that it is not far buried in some places yet.

Towards the end of the book Griffin is hitchhiking through Alabama and each driver offers a lift merely to titillate their lewd sexual preconceptions, the atmosphere often teetering on a knife-edge between jocularity and violence if any insubordination is suspected. You can feel the author’s indecision between keeping up the placid façade and risking educating the ignorant, an almost impossible line to walk. The reader is left in no doubt of the moral bankruptcy of a racist theory based on fallacies like the African American lack of sexual morals and desire to ravage the pure white woman leading to fears of racial impurity, when constantly placed alongside the seemingly endless tales of  white southerners who, to quote one driver, hired a lot of ‘colored girls’:

“And I guarantee you, I’ve had it in every one of them before they get on the payroll.”

How did the country get to this state? I was struck by two quotes, the first exposing the self-deception of the white majority, or indeed as Griffin points out regularly of any repressive majority:

“…who possess an impressive store of facts, but no truths…”

The other is a simple idea which highlights how far the religious can stray from the spirit of the holy, and seems to be as applicable today as it was in the shameful days of segregation:

“…the only solution to the problems of man is the return to charity,(in the old embracing sense of caritas)…Or, more simply, the maxim of St.Augustine: “Love, and then do what you will.”

-Tuesday, 6/12/11

’25 Poems 3 Recipes and 32 Other Suggestions [An Inventory]’

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‘Instructions, Guidelines, Tutelage, Suggestions, Other Suggestions and Examples etc, An Attempted Book By Tim Key, (And Descriptions/Conversations/A Piece About A Moth),’Tim Key

Sometimes, the title pretty much says it all. I was on the toilet the first time I visited one of my bestest friend’s new places down in Brighton a few years ago, and this was her sole Toilet Reading.

(I hope to someday write a PhD on the social relevance and importance of Toilet Reading on society, and to have shelves in every bathroom if/when I finally settle down).

Luckily I was already on the toilet, because otherwise I may have wet myself.

Tim Key won the Perrier Award as funniest new comic in 2010, and has set about quietly building a following through low-key supporting-act appearances, (he plays Alan Partridge’s hapless radio sidekick on the Foster’s Facebook comedy skits so eagerly awaited last year, for example), his comedy/jazz band, and his limited edition collections of (awful/random/hilarious) poetry, ramblings and surreal humour, one of which I had discovered toiletside and immediately went home and ordered myself on his website, joined by his second book as soon as it was released a year later.

What is in them? Monty Python poems, potential new facial expressions, horrific horoscopes, pretty much anything that seems to come out of Tim’s headbrain, essentially. What’s that, you’d like a sample, you say? Well, at the risk of being shut down for trademark infingement, here are extracts from one of my favourites: ‘An Idea For A Country’:

“NAME: The Respbulia of Latvakia

CAPITAL: Revolu

POPULATION: 4,200,000

LANGUAGE: Quite throaty, (lots of words like ‘gstom’ ‘gstoch’ and ‘ache’).

DOES IT HAVE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT OR NOT? Yes, it does.

NATIONAL DISH: chilli, fish, unleavened rice, lots of Italian food

NATIONAL HOLIDAYS: Same as us: Xmas, Easter, a variation on pancake day, (16,000 people died on this day in 1982).

DO MEN GIVE WOMEN FLOWERS? Oui. The men are very romantic in Latvaki They often give flowers on various occasions, (on Valentine’s Day, when they’ve committed adultery/incest).”

-Wednesday, 7/12/11

Post Office’, Charles Bukowski

The past week of reading has thrown up an enormous amounts of coincidences, many of which you will soon hear about, but one of the most surprising led to this choice.

I had gone to The Cupboard to decide what to read next, and to leave it out, fresh and ready for the next morning and a walk I was taking, (much like I used to lay out my school uniform the night before when I was nine years old, down to the socks un-popped and laid carefully over the bottoms of my grey school trousers). I had it down to either a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme, (which writers I liked had kept name-checking), and the only Bukowski I own, (ditto plus my old friend Kelly who would never stop going on about him).

I settled on the Barthelme.

And then, under the ‘Further Reading/Other Options’ page at the back of the second Tim Key book, (I usually skim through these generally dull, business-only acknowledgements and ISBN/edition/legal fluff pages in the hopes of finding another ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers. If you haven’t read it, or didn’t find the DVD extras, check out the publisher’s page next time you’re in a bookshop/library/friend who owns the book’s house). Sure enough, the very first line was: “Anything by Bukowski.”

So, that settled that then.

I wandered the streets on the way to my appointment with this, his slim first novel. It was about as gritty, honest and offensive as I had been expecting, shades of Henry Miller’s tropics, like Kerouac with all of the boring traveling taken out and all of the sex, cruelty and bodily functions left in, (I can’t be the only one who found the ‘classic’ ‘On the Road’ one of the dullest books of all time? Can I?)

Hung on the frame of a man struggling to make a living, (read: enough to gamble, drink and whore), from a sadistic job as a postman, (why is it that the UK has the Royal MAIL, whilst the US has the National POST?), the fast-moving story veers from deep social criticism of cut-throat capitalism to sexist, mindless violence, (and marriage). Brutally funny at times, depressingly bleak most of the other times, I was really enjoying this beat throwback until a casual rape scene threw me and made me feel guilty for enjoying the attitude that had led there.

But the work scenes are honest and at times extremely funny, (his bluffs and small victories against superiors makes you wonder how America became a superpower in the 70s if this was even vaguely representative of the workers’ and bosses’s attitudes), and there are even moments of tenderness, although almost always undermined by a misogynistic, even misanthropic attitude which can never quite be kept down: on seeing his new-born daughter for the first time, you start to wonder if the lead character does have any feelings. The very next paragraph, he is commenting on the nurse’s figure.

Reading this did make me want to pick up one or two more, to see in which direction Bukowski’s writing went, but even more it made me want to see the movie they made of his life, ‘Factotum’ starring Matt Dillon as the’s fictional alter-ego Bukowski first created here. It also confirmed my initial and recently ever-strengthening conviction that I never want a job.

Favourite line: “I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face, combed my hair. If I could only comb that face, I thought…”

-Thursday, 8/12/11

‘Pigeon English,’ Stephen Kellman

As mentioned briefly in my opening blog, I have a passion for lists. I make them, I read them, I consider ‘High Fidelity‘ to be one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, (and one of the best cinematic adaptations to boot. That’s a great saying, ‘to boot.’ I don’t even want to know where it comes from, or what it really means. I love it unconditionally).

It will therefore come as little surprise that when people get together and make a list of the best half-dozen or so books produced in the Commonwealth, (if you don’t know what the Commonwealth is, don’t ask…well, don’t ask me at least, as I’m not 100% sure), and then choose one of them, and subsequently create a list of those winners over the past 40 years, I will probably want to read the winners on that list. Furthermore, if I happen to be (unfortunate enough to be?) in Britain in the weeks leading up to said announcement, I may well get caught up in the shortlist, too. This is what happened with this year’s Man Booker Prize, (previously less Manly, and more Bookish). When combined with the discovery of a ‘new’ bookshop, (new to me, at least: Hatchard‘s appears to be the oldest bookshop in London…), which specialises in signed editions, (lists and autographs! My achiles foot!), the result was me picking up a couple of the five short-listed books for 2011, new authors both to me and to publishing, and the first one I decided to read was ‘Pigeon English,’ partly purchased due to its beautiful cover, in bright orange and red silhouette.

Inspired by a tragic and epoch-defining event in the UK in 2000 when a ten-year old Ghanian immigrant was murdered in London, the book begins as a standard, modernised reworking of many coming-of-age school-days tales, (reminding me most of ‘Black Swan Green‘ by one of my favourite authors, David Mitchell). The youthful slang is easy to decode, recalling more strenuous readings of ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ and ‘Trainspotting’ as you get used to the novel used of the qualifier ‘even’ and the smattering of Ghanian vocabulary, and the black and white certainty of pre-teens who can preempt any argument with the simple conversation closer: “Everybody agrees.”

One interesting facet of the writing was that the book never slips into the sentimentality of ‘struggling-immigrant-in-London’ storyline which it could have done. This is due to the fact that Harri, the recently-arrived Ghanian protagonist, appears to fit in better than I would due to being a schoolboy, and all 11-year-old schoolboys seem to have the same concerns: being cool, having the right trainers, (sneakers, to all my transatlantic readers), not getting beaten up, and making anything worth doing if you’re doing it to win points, (a very similar theme being raised in a book I read two weeks ago when comedian Marcus Brigstocke admitted to getting his infant kids to do whatever he wanted merely by telling them he was timing them, and they had to beat the record time).

Instead, it is through Harri’s consistent innocence, and the gradual sense of impending tragedy, that the book finds its force: he wants to be the fastest in the school year, he wants to make his new girlfriend happy and doesn’t understand why anyone else would want otherwise, he wants the class clown to be quiet so he can learn.”I haven’t even got a favourite gun yet. I haven’t really thought about it. If I had to choose it would probably be a supersoaker…They only fire water…You have to ask the person permission before you soak them for if they don’t like it, otherwise there’ll be a ruckus…”In a country where this can happen, literature which portrays people as people, kids as kids, be it fiction like this or reportage like ‘Black Like Me‘, can only be a good thing. (Although I wonder how many books this woman reads…)
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‘Barrel Fever’, David Sedaris
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If there’s one thing I like more than books, it’s a signed book. Signed to me, preferably. I don’t know what it is about getting someone’s scribble on a book, bu ever since my first one, obtained from a visiting kid’s author when I was around 8 at junior school, I can’t stop getting books signed. The first one I remember going out of my way for was when Michael Palin caused a traffic jam in Oxford High Street signing copies of his ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ travelogue years ago: I queued for two hours to meet him, (and even make him laugh with the dedication I requested!) From such humble origins, I now have a shelf of around 70/80 dedicated books, (most of them dedicated to me: whenever people in front of me in signing queues ask for it not to be made out to anyone, I usually quip that they should just sign it: “Dear eBay.”)So when I finally managed to return to the incredible Hay-on-Wye literature festival on the Anglo-Welsh border this year, a place where the line between writer and writee are blurred, and an entire tent is set aside for autograph sessions, I was thrilled to see David Sedaris on the program. Even better, I was there as a steward, and also promoting Apple’s iBook store, and as such had a luminous VIP pass: a bright yellow ‘Steward’ vest which allowed me to hang around and hassle authors after the plebian public had overstayed their welcome.The hour-long talk he had given to one of the most crowded audiences of the festival had been hilarious, and an entire section was set aside for jokes which people had told him over the years. He then proceeded to break every rule of Being Famous and actually requested people to come and tell him their favourite jokes after the talk! This meant that I had to wait nearly two hours to meet the diminuitive American satirist, but it proved to be worth every minute of the wait. When the queue had gone, he was still full of energy and encouraged me to lay my best gag on him. I opened with my favourite Japanese joke, which seemed to tickle him. He saw me, and raised me. Sitting mere feet from both pensioners browsing shelves for cookbooks, and the author’s boyfriend, I wasn’t expecting to hear:
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-What’s the difference between a Lamborghini and a hard-on?
-I don’t have a Lamborghini…

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This initiated a ten minute joke-off, and culminated with me going home with the only one of his books I hadn’t read, inscribed with the set-up of one of the filthiest jokes I’ve ever been told by an internationally best-selling author: “To Doron, Indefinitely! David Sedaris” (aka illegible scrawl).

Even knowing all of this, I was still surprised by how filthy this collection was, from page one. From what I remembered, his other, fantastic collections, (‘Naked’, ‘Me Talk Pretty One day’, ‘Dress Your Family in Corduroy’), all begin gently with similar recollections of childhood idiosyncrasies in the Sedaris family: by page six of ‘Barrel Fever’ I was already reading one of the dirtiest, (and most libelous?), stories about the narrator’s relationship with Charlton Heston, (“…one of the tightest men I’ve ever known…”). This is trumped mere pages later with the story of a new relationship with Mike Tyson, and what he gets up to with his false teeth.

I remember the ubiquitous question in university essays of whether it is necessary to know an artist to appreciate their work. I had always come down on the ‘no’ side, that art should be able to stand and fall on its own merits. But knowing who David Sedaris is makes it hard not to sputter at seemingly innocent lines in stories such as: “I can love just about anything on all fours…”

Disappointingly for an author I had grown to love, ‘Barrel Fever’ descends into darker, less laugh-a-minute territory than his other books: it is downright bleak at times, (is it me, or did half of the stories begin with the mention of the death of one of his parents?), a patchy collection of varying length pieces and of varying comedic value. However, it was written waaaaay back in 1994, so maybe he became funnier with fame/money/time? The major evolution in his work appears to be a shift away from fiction, which this was, to the more gentle autobiographical satire which has developed, but this still shows his trademark biting wit and observational nuggets such as:

“If you’re looking for sympathy, you can find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary,”
“It is confusing when a stupid man plays dumb,”

and an exchange from the excellent closing story ‘SantaLand Diaries’ which transported me straight back to my time teaching in Japan:

“Often the single adults are just foreigners who just happened to be shopping at Macy’s and got bullied into the maze by Entrance Elf…
‘How many in your party?’
The foreigner answers. ‘Yes.’
‘How many in your party is not a yes or no question.’
‘Yes.'”

Not a bad collection, but if you haven’t read Sedaris yet, and are tempted by my recommendations, start with one of the others and I dare you to get through a single story without snorting with laughter at least once. Go on. Try it.
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-Friday, 9/12/11
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‘Snowdrops’, A.D.Miller

One of my favourite chapters in ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ by one of my favourite authors, Richard Dawkins, tackles the issue of coincidences. I love coincidences, but I enjoy their logical or mathematical explanations just as much, for the insight they give us into how life can fool our often not-so-logical brains. (One of my favourites is the fact that you only need 23 people to have odds better than 50/50 that two of them will share a birthday, not 183 people!)

Still, on deciding to get my second Man Booker nominee out of the way, (being signed too, it was one which wasn’t going to come traveling with me and end up given to a fellow traveler or exchanged at a second-hand shop), I was struck by the fact that I appeared to be reading a summary of the teach-yourself Russian book I have been working my way through for the past few months, every phrase, building, square, Moscow street name and even the unpronounceable airport popped over within the first few dozen pages. Much of the plot even revolves around an oil-based ‘joint venture,’ a phrase which had been inexplicably introduced in Chapter 4 of my Berlitz book and which, I was fairly sure, I would never even come across in English, let alone Russian. Providing even more cross-textualisation, the story’s babushka reminisces on a cathedral which “…the communists had turned into a museum of atheism…”, a fascinating concept which I would have had no idea about had I not three weeks ago finished the fantastic ‘Empirium‘ by one of the world’s greatest journalists, Poland’s Ryszard Kapuscinski.

After getting over this surprise, I was first struck by how the early chapters seemed to be merely a catalogue of clever ex-pat observations on Russia loosely strung together on the frame of a weak storyline. This both fascinated and frustrated me a little since, as many of you know, I have recently finished writing a novel which may be merely a catalogue of clever ex-pat observations on Japan loosely strung together on the frame of a weak storyline.

This is Miller’s debut novel, too, and the pace of the thriller is slow and understated, but as the dual plots of dubious business deals and dubious private relationships unfold, they seem to merge. The reader is left with the impression that in Russia business is all politics, and love is all business, and all are a sham and, more importantly, impossible for an outsider to penetrate. This seems to be the main thrust of the tale, the narrator’s realisation that pride comes before a fall. Early in the tale he shows disdain for his fellow London businessmen who float through their time, remaining aloof and unaffected by their surroundings, whereas he is proud of his linguistic development and apparent understanding of Russian society, (I personally appreciated the line: “I was on my way to being fluent, but my accent still gave me away halfway through my first syllable.”). By the end, however, he (somewhat inexplicably) doesn’t even fight what he makes out to be his immoral destiny when he sees that he has been trapped by his naivety and the ruthlessness of those it comes up against.

This reminded me of a debate I had years ago with a friend on the merits of the 2006 Oscar-winning movie ‘Babel.’ I had seen it as an ‘Inspector Calls’ style ode to randomness and chaos theory, my friend as a disgraceful call to stick with what you know and avoid adventure. This time, my opinion had flipped, and I came away with the slightly depressing message that we can never know a culture so seemingly similar but fundamentally different as the Soviet one; as an inveterate traveler, and lover of new cultures this left me with a slightly depressed feeling, summed up by the sweeping maxim:

“…communism didn’t ruin Russia, it was the other way round…”

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The depressing undertones are accentuated by the depressing overtones: even more than the death and scams the storyline throws up, it is the doomed romantic aspect which got to me. The novel is a confession letter to a new love, but written with full openness on the narrator’s self-deluded love for the mysterious Masha. The romantic notions, shown in passages such as:

“I was already thinking of her and me as real life, and the rest as somehow distant and less important…”

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leaves you with the very clear impression that all love is relative, and wondering why this new love interest should believe anything such a desperately self-deluded romantic says.

Both of my Booker books lost out to Julian Barnes’sThe Sense of an Ending,’ which I had no intention of reading but may now have to sometime to keep up my listamania, but despite enjoying them both I was left with the question: are these really two of the best five books published in the UK, Australia, Canada, who knows how many other countries, (why is the Commonwealth even a relevant entity in the 21st century, anyway?) ‘Midnight’s Children‘ or ‘The Remains of the Day’ they certainly ain’t.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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