Thursday, 2 February 2023

One Man's Opinion: 4 3 2 1 by PAUL AUSTER

 


‘a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man…’

Does a book have to permeate every part of your being to be life changing? I’m not sure it does, especially after reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. I think this one has been life-changing for me for reasons I’ll outline and in ways that possibly only this novel could have managed.

I’ve been in a reading slump for a good while, managing only to complete books over long periods of time and without being totally drawn in. Worse, I’ve been in a writing slump and this has been the cause of plenty of anguish. And worse still, I’ve been in a general slump that was beginning to seem never-ending. And here is Mr Auster, reaching out from somewhere and making things better like some mind-bending magician or higher being.

How did he do it? I’m not entirely sure. There’s the fact that the book contains so many of his familiar paths: modern US history; satisfying lists; newspaper reports; basketball; baseball; New York; book stores; the music of chance; lines that make you stop to re-read them more than once; rebellion; philosophy; wordplay and connection; Paris; rebellion; a delight in the history of prose and poetry; and writing. Each of these suggests echoes of previous work. The comfort of that is something difficult to measure. For me, taking me back to my twenties and the days when I first fell in love with his writing was a real treat.

My reading slump must surely now be over. 900 pages within a month is something I wouldn’t have been able to face until this one. I set myself the goal and managed it. It was a challenge at times, but I made it to the end and I’m delighted I did. Surely that means I now have the discipline and the desire to take on more (I have SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland in the wings, so I’m pretty sure that the journey of joy will continue).

My writing slump was already coming to an end. The idea was in place and I was ready to start. What 4,3,2,1 has reminded me of is that the ability to write and create stories is an amazing thing to have. I’m back at the keyboard and have a chapter in the bag. I’ll never match Mr Auster for quality, nor will I match countless others, but I can knock out a decent novel and want this next piece to be the best I’ve managed yet.

And if one of the essences of this book is distilled, everything has the potential to be life-changing, each decision and action opening new doors and directions that lead to other doors and directions and so on.

4,3,2,1 is about Ferguson. Or 4 different versions of Ferguson. From the same beginning, each of the four lives out a life that is a consequence of different things happening. The stories work in sequence. People who die in one chapter are still living in another. Things that have been jettisoned by one Ferguson are embrace by another. Good things happen to all of them and so do terrible things. His sexuality may not be the same. Those around him change, depending on their own altered circumstances. Throughout it all, we see each Ferguson growing up and taking a voyage of self-discovery. The backdrop of the civil rights movement and anti-war movements are prominent and each individual’s interaction with each is fundamental to who they become.

The author managed to keep me on track most of the time. When fumbling to recall what had happened to whom, a key aspect of their life would remind me where I was. In truth, I’m not sure how important it was that the separation was maintained, for as much as each Ferguson was different, in other ways they were interchangeable (there’s only so much bending that one set of genes can tolerate).

I’m sure this is a profound novel. One that will have deep thinkers wallowing in material for an age. Being of little brain, I’m just happy I read it and that the food for thought I was able digest was nourishing and tasty.

For the most part, I loved the book. On occasion, I had to slog through pages when my attention wavered. I had to overcome some early doubts about my engagement when it occurred to me that it didn’t matter what was happening to Ferguson at any point because it would soon by thrown up in the air to come out differently at the next stop. Those moments aside, I was rooting for each of them all the way to their ends.

A little quote to finish, one I appreciated and that all writers out there are likely to have experienced at one time or another:

‘There were reviews. For the first time in his life, he was bussed and slapped in public, thirteen times over the next four months by his reckoning, long, medium and short reviews in newspapers, magazines, and literary quarterlies, five satisfying French kisses, a friendly pat on the back, three punches to the face, one knee to the balls, one execution by firing squad and two shrugs. Ferguson was both a genius and an idiot, both a wonder boy and a supercilious oaf, both the best thing that had happened this year and the worst thing that had happened this year, both brimming with talent and utterly devoid of it…try as he did to ignore both the good and the bad that were said about him, Ferguson had to admit that the stings went on stinging long after the kisses had worn off…Fuck it, he said to himself, as he filed away the reviews in the bottom drawer of his desk. If and when he ever published another book, he would stop up his ears with candle wax, cover his eyes with a blindfold, strap his body to the mast of a ship, and then ride out the storm until the Sirens could no longer touch him.’

Oh how those shrugs must have hurt.

Friday, 20 January 2023

One Man's Opinion: ALL MY SONS by ARTHUR MILLER


I don't think I've read more than one play since I was at school. Back then, it would have been Shakespeare and I would have found the references that I didn't understand and the language to be major barriers to enjoyment. Everything had to be explained and I just didn't get it. To me it was always much better watching his work brought to life on stage, which allows my mind to access it a little more.

The play I read in between times was Sweetheart by Nick Grosso and it had the advantage that I'd already seen it at the Royal Court. Very good indeed, both on stage and on the page. 

All My Sons was a lovely surprise. I soon forgot that I was only reading dialogue and found and easy rhythm, mostly because the play lures you in and keeps building the pace and the drama. 

It's a three act piece, each set in the same place, that being the family home of the Kellers. They're in a variety of messes and they all become untangled and further tangled in a short space of time. 

Joe Keller is an old man who made it big during WW2 by profiting for the need to arm his nation. When issues with the goods he was supplying were raised after a number of planes fell from the sky, Joe and his partner were accused of killing the pilots. Joe got off and his partner took the rap. It's a precarious situation as those in the town aren't entirely convinced that justice has been done. 

Joe's son, Chris Keller, has his heart set on marrying the daughter of Joe's now imprisoned father. A further complication is that she was once the sweetheart of Chris's brother who was a pilot that went missing in action during the war. The tension here is that Chris's mother has never acknowledged the possible death of her son and expects him to come home any day.

Enter George, son of the imprisoned partner and brother of Chris's prospective fiancée. George has just visited his father and has had an epiphany what is about to rock the family’s not too steady ship to the point where something will have to give.

Just outlining the story explains too some extent the complexity of the piece. There are lots of strands and they’re perfectly weaved together. We’re asked to consider a variety of issues as the plot unfolds and the play becomes more uncomfortable as layers are either peeled off or added.

My only reservation, me being a creature of novels rather than scripts, is the way so much is packed into such a short space of time. It feels unlikely that all of these strands would ever come together, but I guess that’s due to the confines of staging a play and the limitations that might bring. Even so, like adjusting to the format, this is easy to overlook and I found myself racing to the end and, even though it should have been predictable, I didn’t see it coming.

Having reached the final page, I was left with a feeling that I’d been here before. Memory not being my strongpoint, I checked it out and see that it’s also a noir movie which there’s every chance I would have watched at some point and may well watch again if I can find a way to do so.

It’s not a long read, but it’s a rewarding one nevertheless.

The good news for me is that it comes as part of a double-header and I’m looking forward to checking out A View From The Bridge very soon.  

 


Tuesday, 10 January 2023

One Man's Opinion: TEX by S E HINTON



 'I'd seen a muscle in his jaw jump, and I knew I'd hurt him. If felt good. It was the first time I realised hurting somebody could feel really good.'

Life so often with my favourite reads, it'd difficult to put my finger on why I enjoyed Tex so much.

While it's not quite up there with the absolute classics of The Outsiders, That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish, it shares many of their qualities and themes. 

The key relationship in the book is between Tex and his older brother, Mason, a basketball hopeful and an ambivalent school idol. Mason, who looks after the family finances, has had to sell Tex's horse to keep their lives afloat. Unfortunately, the horse is Tex's closest friend. It's when he's riding that he is at his most free and for Mason to get rid of Negrito is akin to him severing one of Tex's limbs (or possibly two or three). This sets the scene wonderfully and nails the love-hate relationship between the two from the off. 

What follows is Tex finding his feet. There's a wonderful naivity about him at first, a very simple way of being and appreciating the world and a sense that he's going to be among those who stay in their rural location as opposed to being one of those who is desperate to leave. 

As he finds love, gets into increasingly problematic scrapes at school, falls in and out with his best friend, attempts to rebuild his relationship with his father through a lens of blind faith and becomes innocently enmeshed with a drug dealer, his naivety is bashed and scraped to such an extent that he is forced to toughen up quickly. 

Though I was engaged from the start and loved the characters and their situations, the journey through life for Tex seems less smooth and organic when compared to the protagonists of the books that came before. In spite of this, the love of the characters and general involvement was just as potent and the ability Hinton has to punch to the gut with the use of words and spaces is just the way I'd hoped. 

Terrific work and one to check out. 

Thursday, 1 December 2022

One Man's Opinion: MAIGRET AT PICRATT'S


'No apartment would have looked cheerful in that weather. It was one of those bleak days when you wonder what you're on earth for in the first place and why you're going to so much trouble to stay here.'

I'm not sure what's happening to me as a reader. Or even as a person. I think I'm developing stronger positions and opinions on a range of subjects and I'm becoming more easily offended. 

Take Maigret at Picratt's. It's a fine read in so many ways. In fact, I'd go further and say that it contains many of my favourite Maigret settings and behaviours. 

He's intrigued by a case when a young dancer from a local strip-joint, the kind of place frequented by tourists looking for the 'real Paris' or men looking for thrills, claims she's heard that a duchess is about to be murdered. When the police turn her away because the story has changed, the dancer leaves and becomes the victim of a killer. 

Said dancer was the queen of them all. She's erotic and sensual and had powers in the bedroom that shocked even her most experienced partners. She also happened to have been the apple of Detective Lapointe's eye and he was totally besotted. 

And then the body of a duchess turns up. A drug-addled old lady, her flat is filthy and life full of a mysterious history. 

Maigret gets to hang around at the club to carry out his investigation. He loves the people and the buzz of the place and drinks more than he usually might while on a case. He also frequents the local bars and observes the world at night time. 

Almost all of that is fantastic. 

And then a small-time addict, supplier to the duchess, turns up. That's when I struggled. 

Here's an example of Maigret's perspective:

'Deep down, like all fairies, he was proud of it, and an involuntary smile formed on his unnaturally red lips. Maybe getting told off by real men turned him on.'

From here, the resentment and hate for the man and all gay men simply continues. 

I know that I've read many a book written a long time ago and been able to overlook such descriptions. Issues regarding race, gender and sexuality come up fairly frequently, but I've generally been able to forgive the author if there was no real malice involved. I'm also more than happy for characters to have offensive attitudes and opinions - I've created many a scumbag myself. The problem for me was that this was Maigret. I've overlooked many a thought or an action in the past, putting it down to the attitudes of the time. It was informative in some way, or wasn't anything to get worked up about. 

This time was different. Maigret's views spoiled the remainder of the book and left me feeling pretty negative about the whole thing. 

I've been reading Simenon's work for over thirty years, almost always with enthusiasm and admiration. I hope that Picratt's doesn't mean that pleasure is to loose it's warmth. 

This is possibly a great book. Reviews score highly. Take out this rotten core and I'd probably agree with them. 

Disappointing.

Monday, 14 November 2022

One Man's Opinion: TROOPER DOWN by ANTHONY NEIL SMITH



Following authors is a great passtime and ANS is someone I've admired for many years. He's a class act, that's for certain, and I've loved most of the books I've read of his. 

Trooper Down is something of an exception. Perhaps I'm getting old and in need of brighter landscapes these days. 

Essentially there are a couple of things that stopped me fully engaging with the novel. 

The first is the protagonist. I'm used to unlikeable characters, but this one has no redeemable features. I didn't want to root for him and, in the end, that proved to be problematic for me. 

My second issue was with the voice. The story is narrated by the protagonist and, as part of his journey, there's a brain injury caused by a gunshot that means he's not always in tip-top shape. This was always going to make the story-telling complex and ANS has a good stab at it, but for me the self-correction and the tangents just got in the way. 

I'll be back for more Smith, there's no doubt about it and I wouldn't deliberately put off anyone from giving this a try- just be warned, it's dark and jolting and a little bit different. 

Thursday, 29 September 2022

ACCELERATE by Brendan C. Byrne and Tomislav Tikulin


 

Joam was a hot courier in a Los Angeles falling apart, where you lived or died by your reaction time behind the wheel. He was the best, but the best wasn't good enough. Eventually, he knew, he'd just be a splat on the pavement, frying in the 120 degree sun. Electing for experimental vehicle-integration surgery, Joam is merged with his ride. Now Joam's not only the fastest, most feared courier in LA: he's an absolute legend. But the experimental surgery was experimental. Joam's body is falling apart. Pretty soon he'll just be consciousness trapped within a machine.

"Accelerate is a killer read, a hypnotic stumble off the roof of our future. Think Mad Max by James Joyce."—Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware Tetralogy.

Read for free here: https://online.fliphtml5.com/huahm/kwhu/

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

THE COMPELLED (illustrated novella) by Adam Roberts and François Schuiten

 


A mysterious change has occurred in humanity. Nobody knows how, why or exactly when this change came about, but disparate, seemingly unconnected people have become afflicted with the uncontrollable desire to take objects and move them to other places, where the objects gather and begin to form increasingly alien, monolithic structures that appear to have vast technological implications. Some of the objects are innocuous everyday things—like a butter knife taken still greasy from a breakfast table or a dented cap popped off a bottle of beer. Others are far more complex—like the turbine of an experimental jet engine or the core of a mysterious weapon left over from the darkest days of WWII.

Where is the Compulsion coming from? And—possibly more importantly—when the machines they’re building finally turn on, what are they going to do?

"Visually gorgeous and highly recommended" —WASHINGTON POST

https://online.fliphtml5.com/huahm/pody/