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Selected Poems
Selected Poems
by Don Paterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.27

4.0 out of 5 stars Fear not: this is spiritual transport / albeit the less elevated sort, 12 Oct 2014
This review is from: Selected Poems (Paperback)
Don Paterson's first Selected Poems seems a long time coming. Simon Armitage published his first book only four years before Paterson's first, yet published his Selected Poems with Faber over a decade ago. You could make a case that Armitage is more prolific, and that would carry some weight. You could make another case saying Paterson is better, and that might carry more. Most other British poets are the warm-up. Paterson is the main event.

He'd probably swing for me for saying this, but it's hard not to feel an almost paternal pride at seeing a writer whose work you've followed since his first book do as well as Paterson has. Not to belittle either the awards or the big names that have tuned in to him since, but it's the feeling of the deserving getting its due that sticks best.

I should own up to a fudge here: that line in the subject heading, and the poem it's taken from, isn't included in this volume. But, as with a greatest hits album, that's one of the incidental pleasures of a Selected Poems: guessing which ones will make the cut, which won't, and seeing the final result. I'm happy to note only three I'd expected to see aren't included ('Graffito' and 'Seed' from Nil Nil, 'Prologue' from God's Gift to Women); and happier still to note the 'Alexandrian Library' series has been left out.

What's been left in tells an interesting, between-the-lines story. The bite and brashness of the early work is wholly intact, vivid and alive in 'Filter', the closing stanza of 'Nil Nil', and my enduring favourite 'An Elliptical Stylus', which sets up the tale, breaks the fourth wall in the middle, and closes with a fist shaken at the audience:

'But if you still insist on resonance -
I'd swing for him, and every other ****
happy to let my father know his station,
which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.'

Most great writers are two people, if not more: their art grows out of the splits in their personalities. The man that 'tilted the bottle towards the sun / until it detonated with light / my lips pursed like a trumpeter's' is also the man that urges you (twice) that none of this matters. Among other things, it's that split between Paterson's erudition and urge to demolish that charges the poems.

The oeuvre, too. Not that the early work lacked tenderness, but the further you go, the more you see it flower in the poems, trusted to stand on its own without getting either too misty-eyed or too wised-up, especially in 'Advice to Young Husbands', 'A Private Bottling', 'Waking with Russell', 'The Swing', 'Why Do You Stay Up So Late' and 'Correctives':

'The shudder in my son's left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands

the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand's kindness to the other.'

Keeping it all in balance, somewhere in the middle, is Paterson's sense of fun. The playfulness isn't all surface, as with the typography (as in the ones taken from The Eyes, such as 'Sigh' and 'Poem', the latter a swift, perfect little fusion of content and style); the subject ('Two Trees') and including a poem in name only and probably the shortest one in the language ('On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him').

This volume - witty, vigorous - has been long overdue.

Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014
Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014
by Simon Armitage
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Real Boy Wonder, 11 Oct 2014
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When I pass a shelf and see a Selected Poems by either Heaney, Hughes or Hill, I somehow feel that they've always been there. On seeing this, the second Selected Poems from a poet whose career began when I was 8, that feeling isn't there. A rather unique kind of buzz, however, is.

I won't pretend Simon Armitage's background didn't help put that there. Armitage actually went and saw something of the real world (he was a probation officer for seven years) before setting it down in mature work. Although interested in poems that want to crack the code for The Self, Identity, etc. as well as ones that want to sing songs and tell stories, he ultimately preferred the latter. He didn't think the more unreadable a poem was, the better it was by default. For the winner, he wasn't just another product fresh off the Oxbridge Assembly Line, or even from the South. That's the kind of biography I'd like to see on the inside of more books, and Faber ones in particular.

The volume is fatter than you might expect, even for a poet as prolific as Armitage. As well as selections from his last three collections, there are excerpts from his growing list of translations, work that previously appeared only in limited editions, and even three poems from his next Faber title. Not that Armitage has ever wanted for versatility, but it's a pleasing reminder of how many plates he can spin.

Before reading, I made a mental note of all the poems I expected to see, and tallied up how many actually did. Long-time favourites like 'It Ain't What You Do, It's What It Does To You', 'Great Sporting Moments: The Treble', 'The Two of Us', 'The Tyre', 'I Say I Say I Say' and 'Poem' (from Kid) all re-appear, as does 'To His Lost Lover', which still strikes me as Armitage's best poem. Surprisingly, other gems like 'Lines Thought to Have Been Written on the Eve of the Execution of a Warrant for His Arrest' and 'To Poverty' don't make the grade a second time around. I said this when the last volume came out, but I still would have loved to see more poems from his first collection Zoom! (such as 'Dykes', 'The Night Shift' and 'Somewhere Along the Line').

Like a singer varying the set list for each leg of a tour, Armitage has tweaked his selections. As an example, 'And You Know What Thought Did' has been dropped, while two more ('Phenomenology' and 'Don't Blink') from Zoom! have been added. With the exception of Moon Country (which now contributes two poems rather than just one), the number from the later volumes has reduced, including the long sequence 'Five Eleven Ninety-Nine'.

Of the work since 2001, I think it's more uneven. All writers produce work that's outstanding, middling or plain minging, of course. From The Universal Home Doctor, you get poems of the calibre of 'All For One', 'Birthday' and 'The Shout', but from then on, the quality control wobbles. 'The Spelling' moves, but the overall selection from Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid lacks the power or quotability of the earlier work. I can appreciate the integrity of a writer trying to do something completely different from anything he's done before, but I don't think the results from Seeing Stars, unwisely included here, come off.

Thankfully, things not only pick up from here - they soar. The excerpts from 'Black Roses - The Killing of Sophie Lancaster' are crisp, cinematic, memorable, and urgent. The selections from In Memory of Water are among his very best Armitage. Armitage is usually known for his medium-sized poems that tell a story, often a comic one. But it's interesting to note how when he brings out his two-line stanzas, all excess baggage is dropped, and they glow with tenderness. Within the flinty joker that speaks your one-liner, there's a lyric poet trying to get out. After cameo appearances in 'To His Lost Lover', it's nice to see him main-eventing beautiful poems like 'Snow'. I hope to see even more of him next time around.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
by James Booth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Larkin Again, 4 Oct 2014
When Letters to Monica was published in 2011, you might have been forgiven for thinking the stink left in the air after Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite published Larkin's biography and Selected Letters had been long dispersed. After Motion's biography followed Richard Bradford's, then Maeve Brennan's memoir, and a succession of intelligent criticism to foil the scolds. Larkin topped the Times' list of the best 50 writers since World War 2, and his Collected Poems secured its place in John Carey's Pure Pleasure, a list of the best 50 books of the twentieth century. After a brief but furious debate about the man's character, it seemed, the work was as inviolate as ever. Was another biography, then, seeking to 'reinstate a man misunderstood', quite necessary?

Booth, unsurprisingly, thinks so. His credentials, at first, seem right. Booth was a colleague of Larkin's at the University of Hull for seventeen years, has published two critical studies on Larkin, is the Literary Adviser to the Philip Larkin Society, co-edits its journal, and saw an edition of Larkin's early fiction into print. His 'Larkin on Ice', presumably, is forthcoming.

Booth's credentials, while extensive, are also his major weakness. He writes as if Larkin's reputation was still locked away in a tower, awaiting the heroic Sir James to turn up and rescue it single handed. Booth's constant finger-wagging at, variously, Larkin's maltreated women, friends, acquaintances, publishers, biographers, critics, along with the weather, Hull, London, the provinces and readers of Larkin's poems other than Booth himself, is somewhat annoying.

To give credit where it's due, Booth's biography pours more smoothly than any before it. Making the life of a partially deaf, unmarried, Hull-dwelling, near-hermit Librarian sound interesting is a feat by anyone's standards. Jargon, allowing for some technical words relating to the intricacies of meter and rhyme, is all but excluded. His comments on the poems are frequently incisive, and an improvement on those Archie Burnett devoted so much space to in the 2012 edition of Larkin's Collected Poems. One particularly remembers this one, on 'Here': 'Larkin pulls out all the organ-stops of rhyme and assonance to create a sumptuous music of consonant clusters and shifting vowels, unlike any else in his poetry.'

Booth is also to be praised for reminding the scolds - Tom Paulin, Lisa Jardine (though, sadly, not Bonnie Greer) - that the man they condemned as a racist hailed Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong as his artistic masters. Like Bradford before him, Booth points out that every instance of Larkin's supposed deep-seated racism was in the language he used to shock his unshockable friends, usually expressed in private correspondence. The letters were evidence of a voice modulating according to its receiver. As John Banville put it, they showed 'less the grimace of a bigot than a mischievously fashioned Halloween mask.' The porn - two samples of which are included in the photo section - seem as tame and quaint as Friday the 13th Part 1.

Booth's line goes wonky when it arrives at the subject of Larkin's women. Here, Booth's mission does leads him into saying things not merely dim, but borderline despicable. Just as the editors who turned down Larkin's early jottings have to be demonised for not recognising the Genius Among Us, Booth has to brand Larkin's women as grasping, hypocritical, fame-seeking, neurotic, difficult, constantly making him 'the victim of the breadth and generosity of his sensibility and the narrowness of theirs.' Uh-huh.

I don't think it unfair to question Booth's critical judgment. Simple opinions are presented as indisputable fact. Remember the last stanza of 'High Windows'?

'Rather than words come the thought of High Windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And, beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.'

At the end of the draft version of the poem, Booth tells us, Larkin wrote as an alternative to the last three words 'and f*****g p***.' How many beside Booth would say this has 'now become an inextricable part of the poem [How, given how few have seen this version of it?]; indeed it makes it a more profound work.' Why?

Booth also contradicts himself. In the introduction, he talks of a 'critical orthodoxy' (a rather odd, self-justifying term for 'an awful lot of readers that independently reached a common conclusion') that felt Thwaite's decision to present the first edition of Larkin's Collected Poems in chronological order was no real order at all. It has its uses, as he says, for biographers and other people interested in the `soul history' of Philip Larkin. But for most readers, that was no order at all. As Clive James, who is never referenced in the entire book, once put it, when a man is so careful to arrange his works in a certain order, it is probably wiser to assume that when he subtracts something he is adding to the arrangement. If Booth disagrees, then he's entitled his opinion. What he isn't entitled to is having his cake and eating it. You can't really pat yourself on the back for pointing out how carefully Larkin ordered his poems in one chapter, then pat yourself on the back elsewhere for urging people to ignore that very order. You can perhaps see why some are already saying that James' review of Larkin's Collected Poems (reprinted in Reliable Essays) managed to say more about Larkin and his work than Booth's two studies of the poet put together.

This is an enjoyable book in spite of itself, and despite its often misplaced zeal, I still think it worthy of any Larkin fan.

Hella Nation: In search of the lost tribes of America
Hella Nation: In search of the lost tribes of America
by Evan Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Malinowski Among The Meth-Heads, 27 July 2014
One of the best reads I've had in quite some time. There are other living US journalists worthy of an intelligent reader's attention - John McPhee, Eric Schlosser, David Remnick - but none as funny or as ferociously engaging as Evan Wright.

His work has picked up some lazy comparisons to that of Hunter S. Thompson - not always due to the Rolling Stone connection - but the comparison misleads. However wacky, deluded or bizarre his subjects (porn starlets, eco-terrorists, neo-Nazi's), the tale remains in the foreground, not the teller. Wright has a gift for the telling detail, whether comic or bittersweet, and the piercing phrase. Some favourites:

'A man next to me politely passed the mustard. The bottle was sticky with KY Jelly. I never attempted to eat on a porn shoot again.'

'Shayla's voice was gravelly and sweet, as if her vocal cords had been marinated in whiskey sours since puberty.'

'The owner of the breast, an amphetamine-thin brunette with a feathered biker-chick hairdo, solemnly thanks them [Motley Crüe] and declares she is heading straight to the tattoo parlour to have their signatures gone over in indelible skin ink.'

Wright's care for the people involved comes across too - quite an achievement under the circumstances, perhaps none more so than the pathetically stupid Hollywood agent Pat Dollard. Despite being a cocaine-addicted narcissist with no particular talent for anything, Dollard is somehow allowed to tag along with a band of US soldiers during the Iraq war, intent of showing the 'bedwetters' back home 'killing is one of the most sacred and noble greatest things to go on in the world'. One feels almost like cheering when that sacred and noble thing almost decorates the nearest wall with Dollard's brains, not via the enemy army but an American soldier fed up with his toxic presence.

If I have a complaint, it's a small one: the better stories are all at the front of the book, and in his longer pieces Wright has a tendency to go off on tangents just as the story needs to knit together for the finale.

Wright has also written a book called Generation Kill, about the second Iraq War. It's been compared to classics of war reportage such as Michael Herr's Dispatches - and more than lives up to it. I heartily recommend both.

by Adam Begley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'What a threadbare thing we make of life', 4 May 2014
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This review is from: Updike (Hardcover)
Borges once said of James Joyce that he was less a man of letters than an entire literature. If you wanted a sentence that sums up the career of John Updike - who published over fifty books over a long writing career and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - you'd struggle to dream up a better one than that.

Admittedly, 'struggle' isn't the first word you associate with Updike's career, but after reading Adam Begley's assured, informative biography, you might well modify that judgement. Updike was the only child of poor, Depression-era parents. The creator of juvenile basketball ace Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom doesn't sound like the type of kid you'd pick for the school team. Young Updike was gawky, shy with a bad stutter. Besides psoriasis, Updike also suffered frequent stomach pains, hay fever, and his hair would, at times, suddenly fall out in clumps. Home life was idyllic but secluded after his Mother moved the family to a farm. If you overlook Mother's mood swings, lack of ability for farming, producing publishable manuscripts, and tendency to ban her little treasure from seeing girls, she was undeniably devoted to pushing her son towards his literary destiny. In an interview, she talked of receiving 'a premonition' that if she married Updike's father, 'the results would be amazing'. She was not exaggerating.

Those results were longer coming than you might think. Updike entered Harvard on a scholarship and remained a hard-working student, but often felt out of his depth among the rich, privately-educated boys who formed the bulk of the studentry. His repeated submissions to the New Yorker came back with depressing regularity. Applying for Archibald MacLeish's creative writing class, he was rejected twice; homesickness struck him dysentery. Somehow, as if by magic, things suddenly began to go right. Updike met a girl, continued to produce and send out cartoons, poems and stories, and saw his humourous pieces published in a college periodical. A publisher, keen on those student pieces, asked him if he'd care to submit something to them for publication. A short story first written in the classroom, submitted to the New Yorker largely unchanged, netted him not only an acceptance but, four months after its publication, a job offer at the magazine. The jammy sod married the girl, too.

Begley wisely focuses much attention on Updike's short stories, not just for practical reasons. (The New Yorker's 'whale sized' cheques financed Updike comfortably for the length of his writing life, ensuring he would never need a publisher's advance.) At their best, the stories are matchlessly sharp and poetic, but they also form a running commentary on Updike's life, from dreamy, precocious teenager to happily married father, from not-so-happily-married father to serial adulterer and beyond. Fiction isn't life, of course, but it's hard to deny that a great deal of life provided the blueprint for Updike's fiction. Like all literary biographers of merit, Begley does a tactful job of tying his subject's characters to the people that inspired them. (Sometimes those ties were too close: one of the husbands from the time Updike was writing Couples, who also happened to be a lawyer, very nearly sued him.) Updike asked for some of his rawest stories to be 'banked' by the New Yorker for publication years into the future, and the novel Marry Me, first written in the mid-sixties, was shelved for over a decade before seeing publication. Although 'the vessel of circumstantial facts is all invented', Updike wrote, 'the liquid contained may, if spilled soon, scald somebody'.

On the novels that follow, Begley makes a qualified case for Marry Me, and gives considerable space to Couples (which, we learn, made Updike over a million dollars, and saw his annual income rise from around $50,000 in one year to $410,000 in the next after the sale of the film rights). As is only proper, ample space is given to the Rabbit novels (though, oddly, little on Rabbit At Rest: a mistake, since it's the tetralogy's crowning achievement). Canny readers will have spotted Rabbit's predecessors in Updike's work, notably in the poem 'Ex-Basketball Player'. Now, we know Updike's editor, Katharine White, actively discouraged him from writing about people the New Yorker of the time looked down upon. She also told a friend, somewhat acidly, that fiction wasn't Updike's best vein, and wondered if he was 'too versatile for his own good'. Far from being a New Yorker 'creation', Updike's greatest fiction was created almost in defiance of it.

Begley knows when to trust the details, especially the small ones, and has room for the illuminating anecdote. For his first New Yorker story (out of 136) Updike was paid $490, $612.50 for his second and $826 for his third, at a time when his Father's annual salary amounted to $1,200. We may have noticed that Rabbit At Rest ends in Florida (where Rabbit was unsuccessfully trying to escape to at the end of Rabbit, Run), but we now know the city where he dies is named for the hero of one of his mother's unpublished novels. A celebrated piece on the famous baseball player Ted Williams was written only because Updike had called on a nearby mistress who wasn't at home.

To his credit, Begley doesn't indulge the biographer's vice of hagiography, but I think he is unduly harsh in places. Having established that Updike wanted to leave New York to avoid narrowing his fiction, Begley then snaps the verbal ruler on Updike's hand, then claiming instead that he did it solely to be 'a big fish in a small pond'. Writers, I think Begley will find, are a competitive lot, and often have grumpy spells, not just Updike. I doubt Updike actually did carry out a malicious act of literary vandalism when he described his Mother as an author on the dust jacket of one book, then called her 'an aspiring author' on its inside cover. I am not convinced by Begley's case for Updike's poetry, and I think he gives too little space to Updike's personal and professional relationship with John Cheever, and on the last three decades of Updike's life. (Admittedly, given his often unsparing depiction of Updike's second wife, there may be a good reason for that.)

I also wish that a man keen on overseeing a surge in Updike's posthumous reputation had used the most powerful weapon in his arsenal more often: namely, his language. A few sentences from the short stories, although unpacked well, simply won't do. Whether describing what passes through Rabbit's mind while jogging, the scratch of a key in a lock, the texture of human flesh or even a row of condoms at the local drugstore, Updike's writing makes you look at things as if they have never existed before. When people say Updike was a poet moonlighting as a novelist they pay him a sincere compliment, for his best work celebrates the ordinary, richly fulfilling its creator's aim of 'giving the mundane its beautiful due'. There will be other lives of Updike, but they will have to run fast to overtake this one.

The Faber Book of Utopias
The Faber Book of Utopias
by John Carey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Building Better Worlds, 5 April 2014
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Despite the title, this is a surprisingly grim work. The problem with utopias, as Carey points out, is they aim for perfection. That sounds noble, even benevolent - at first. But human beings are far from perfect, and so are the societies they build around them. A utopia cannot tolerate imperfections: they delay our progress to a better world, and bear down on the people who will achieve it. By necessity, that means wiping out an awful lot of people today for the benefit of people tomorrow.

Carey picks excerpts from a variety of works, many picking up on this paradox knowingly, some otherwise. The range is impressive: Homer, Tacitus, Sir Thomas More (of course), Andrew Marvell, B.F. Skinner, Hitler, Julian Barnes and many others.

Taken together, they're a bracing mixture of idealism and inhumanity. The theme of making people disappear is present even in Plato's The Republic, and is carried on by a disturbing number of others. There are methods other than killing, of course. Huxley and Skinner both describe worlds where criminality has been bred out by a programme of conditioning.

Carey's commentaries on each entry are lively, often with some licensed naughtiness. The World State from Brave New World wins praise as well as blame: they have eliminated crime, and managed the eternal problems of happiness, death, over population. The latter is crucial: the world's population is kept stable at around 2 billion. Our global population is due to reach 8.6 billion by 2025 - a number of people the Earth has never had to support before. How long this can carry on - and the changes to privacy and freedom - is a recurring question. (Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes is an especially dire vision of an overcrowded planet.)

For me, Julian Barnes' vision of Heaven (from the novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters) comes out as the best realised and executed. In Heaven, your food is perfect; your football team never loses; you have time to meet whoever you want, master every skill, craft or sport you choose, read every book, watch every film, and sleep with supermodels daily. It turns out there is still death, even in the afterlife. After a while, people ask - often beg - for oblivion, and get it. Shocked, Barnes' character asks how many people ask for this. Everyone, is the answer. It turns out that at an eternity of always getting what you want, in the end, has the same effect as getting nothing that you want. It's a uniquely human problem. Then again, it's one this book covers with envious range and thoughtfulness.

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
by John Carey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'A history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it', 22 Mar 2014
I remember a conversation with a friend, about fifteen years ago. We'd just seen the Lindsay Anderson film If.... and were talking about the bits we'd liked best. I said that I'd liked the weird bits the most. He said, 'Yeah - the bits in black and white, all the surreal stuff?' I looked a little puzzled, and gave my answer. It was a list of all the day-to-day things that happen in a public school, which its inhabitants clearly seemed to think were ordinary. Ever since I've had an enduring curiosity about what actually goes on in The Great Universities (TM) - if only in the same way an anthropologist does about a tribe of humans previously thought lost to civilisation.

The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:

'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'

Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.

After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:

'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'

Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.

From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.

I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'

He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.

Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When Carey complains about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to (such as Ian Hamilton's). While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.

These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.

Save Me The Waltz (Vintage Classics)
Save Me The Waltz (Vintage Classics)
by Zelda Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1.0 out of 5 stars Documentary interest only., 15 Feb 2014
'Under separate cover, as I believe is the professional phraseology, I have mailed you my first novel. Scott [Fitzgerald] being absorbed in his own has not seen it, so I am completely in the dark as to its possible merits. If the thing is too wild for your purposes, might I ask what you suggest?'

Zelda Fitzgerald, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, March 1932

Written in six weeks while its author was a resident of John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Save Me the Waltz is one of those books that has all the right components, but stalls almost immediately.

Despite the brief time it took to write and Scott's connections to Scribners, the novel led a less than charmed life. Scott wanted alterations. Some were points of copyright (Zelda used the name of 'Amory Blaine' for a character - Scott's hero in This Side of Paradise). Others were points of craft (the middle section sagged, and needed extensive revision). Others seem deeply hypocritical, considering how thoroughly Scott had looted their marriage for material in the past. Once published, the novel tanked: a mere 1,380 copies, earning Zelda $120.73, after deducting the costs for extensive proof corrections.

Rightly, too. Switch off hindsight, and it's hard to imagine writing like this avoiding the slush pile:

'They ordered Veronese pastry on lawns like lace curtains at Versailles and chicken and hazelnuts at Fountainbleu where the woods wore powdered wigs. Discs of umbrella poured over suburban terraces with the smooth round ebullience of a Chopin waltz. They sat in the distance under the lugubrious dripping elms, elms like maps of Europe, elms frayed at the end like bits of chartreuse wool, elms heavy and bunchy as sour grapes. They ordered the weather with a continental appetite, and listened to the centaur complain about the price of hoofs.'

There's barely a page in which something avoids having this amount of lush, undisciplined prose dumped on top of it. The images are charged, but don't connect to their subject; the similes amplify and call attention to themselves, rather than distill and focus attention on what's happening. It's the kind of material authors smile at as they write their first draft, frown at during their second, and cut from their third.

Much as you sympathise with Zelda, this novel is a dud.

The Guts
The Guts
by Roddy Doyle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.68

2.0 out of 5 stars Rabbitte At Rest, 5 Jan 2014
This review is from: The Guts (Hardcover)
It's interesting to note how Doyle's 'Barrytown' trilogy, much like The Simpsons, was initially all about the son, and became all about the father. Over a quarter of a century after he first appeared in The Commitments, the first volume in the trilogy (and originally self-published) it's nice to see Jimmy Rabbitte Junior take centre stage again. The last time we saw him in a novel was in the bath, singing THIS IS JIMMY RABBITTE ALL OVER OIRELAND.

He's older, married, with a sizeable litter of kids. He also has bowel cancer, and a problem with telling his wife. (How do you tell a woman who's just had 'a ride' off you, he ponders, that you have cancer?) He's also, somehow, paid off a mortgage by selling Celtic rock ('riverdance for Nazi's') to nostalgia freaks over the Internet.

Music, contemporary Dublin, satire, swearing and sentence fragments. We're back in Barrytown, and - after the decidedly naff second and third books of The Last Roundup - happy to be there.

For a while.

Doyle's style (minimalist, heavy on dialogue, wih virtually no description), deftly managed in the earlier books, almost sinks this one. Watch him climbing over himself to let you know who's talking, especially in the scenes with more than one character called Jimmy. A key plot point revolves around the lovely Imelda Quirke, yet we get no description of what she actually looks like: Doyle plainly assumes that has already been covered in The Commitments. A newcomer might wonder what all the fuss was about. The book, unusually for Doyle, is over-plotted; it threatens to tangle up the book rather than finish it.

The main plus of this book was reminding me how good Doyle - surely one of the best novelists of the 90s - used to be, and how well those first five books still hold up. I urge your attention to them.

Command and Control
Command and Control
by Eric Schlosser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'If it can go wrong, it will.', 22 Sep 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Command and Control (Hardcover)
The publication of Command and Control was a long time coming - 9 years since Schlosser's last work, Reefer Madness: ... and Other Tales from the American Underground. The weighty volume I hold here (the notes and bibliography alone total 122 pages) make it as blatant as a mushroom cloud that he wasn't idling.

Like Don DeLillo's Underworld, C&C's narrative weaves multiple points of view and real-life testimonies together into a people's history of the Cold War. Unlike Underworld, C&C is not a work of fiction. That point might need repeating. What happens in fiction must always be plausible, true to an ordered sequence of events. What happens in life is plausible only because it happens. How many people would believe a novel in which any of the following happened?

'The BMEWS [radar complex] indicated that the Soviets had launched an all-out missile attack against North America. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were on the phone, awaiting confirmation. The United States had only minutes to respond. [...] A subsequent investigation found the cause of the computer glitch. The BMEWS site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.'

'The Mark 6 was a large weapon, about eleven feet long and five feet in diameter, and as Kulka tried to peek above it, he inadvertently grabbed grabbed the manual bomb release for support. The Mark 6 suddenly dropped onto the bomb bay doors, and Kulka fell on top of it. A moment later, the eight-thousand-pound bomb broke through the doors. Kulka slid off it, got hold of something in the open bomb bay, and held on tight. [...] Neither the pilot nor the co-pilot realised the bomb was gone until it hit the ground and exploded.'

'Russian Nuclear forces went on full alert. President Boris Yeltsin turned on his "football", retrieved his launch codes, and prepared to retaliate. After a few tense minutes, the warning was declared a false alarm. The weather rocket had been launched to study the aurora borealis, and Norway had informed Russia of its trajectory weeks in advance.'

When Schlosser identifies the theme of his book as 'human fallibility', you feel it may go down in history as one of the most chilling understatements of the early 21st century. It's a worthy reminder of the danger of nuclear weapons, especially for a generation that wasn't alive when the Berlin Wall fell.

One of Schlosser's strengths as a writer is his refusal to accept stereotypes, received wisdom. One of his enduring fascinations is just how improbable human beings are. Contradictions abound and multiply like bacteria. President Eisenhower, the former World War 2 general who spent a total of 40 years in the US army, cut its budget by more than one fifth of its funding and one quarter of its troops. The pacifist Bertrand Russell fervently believed the US should annihilate Russia with a pre-emptive strike before it could develop its own nuclear weapons. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, as President Kennedy worried how best to deal Russian missiles deployed only miles away from the US mainland, Russell sent him a telegram reading as follows: 'Your action desperate. Threat to human survival. No conceivable justification. Civilised man condemns it [...] End this madness.'

There's more. The first atomic bomb wasn't completed in a top-secret installation, or even in a laboratory: it was finished in the master bedroom of a ranch house, with the windows sealed with masking tape and a car running metres away outside. Many of the scientists who helped the US build the first atomic bomb weren't psychopathic villains but refugees from Nazi Germany, convinced, with excellent reasons, that Adolf Hitler would build one first. The amount of uranium-235 that turned to pure energy and killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima weighed less than a dollar bill. A good fact or a true story is worth pages of exposition; Schlosser organises his wealth of both with admirable concision and readability.

I have one complaint, though, in that I would have preferred a more strictly chronological approach to the material. If a summary of Bill Clinton's time as governor of Arkansas is essential to your narrative, it's best put in the section concerning a nuclear-near miss in that state, not just before the Korean War is about to start. The focus, at thankfully rare times, blurs as a result.

That aside, this is a strong contender for non-fiction work of the year. Schlosser's former teacher, the unequalled John McPhee (and author of The Curve of Binding Energy), should be proud.
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