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Jim O'Donoghue (UK)
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Vulgar Things
Vulgar Things
by Lee Rourke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, detailed existential novel., 7 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Vulgar Things (Paperback)
No one in their right mind would call this book an easy read, but it was a relief - to this reader at least - to come across a novel that makes so little attempt to ingratiate itself. The industry is fueled by the assumption that novels will pretty much come out the same shape and size, with certain rules of symmetry obeyed, written in prose as inconspicuous as possible. Subject matter, certainly of much English realism, reflects the living conditions of the average novel buyer. So it is a happy surprise to discover a novel that deliberately runs counter to those expectations and lives so thoroughly in a world that many people would be at great pains to avoid even thinking about. "Vulgar Things" walks down the main street of a contemporary provincial city and takes it in, with an intimate detailing of the physical world, as another reviewer has pointed out, making Southend and Canvey so concrete that you feel not just that you are looking at it but that you are physically experiencing the storms, changes of light, conversations and passing container ships. I was often assailed by the feeling, in fact, that this was not just a book - that the story was really happening, in the present, now.

"Vulgar Things" seems to me a big advance on "The Canal", which panders to the reader to the extent that it is set in an accessible London, but which lacks the new novel's surprising moments of relation, not just to the urban landscape, manmade industrial sprawl and natural world but to a number of characters. The constant restless shifting between invisible and tangible worlds is often overwhelmingly effective, mimicking the way our eye and our mind work as we walk down the street or sit thinking in a public place. The descriptions of aimless solo alcohol consumption are horribly realistic, and we are not sheltered from its effects. Lee Rourke creates a fantastically heroless landscape, a grey area scattered with occasional encounters with people who evade glib moral analysis. Its greatest triumph, though, is to make the narrator's existential confusion seem entirely real and naturalistic, which of course it is. Literally, it allows him to question his place not just in the city but under the stars in a way that is moving and troubling and repellent, all at once. Within this, there are outbreaks of beauty that seem entirely accidental - although this is a book that rests on a great deal of research, as is made clear in the author's comments at the end, and these accidents are in fact highly worked. It reminded me at times of scenes in Michael Haneke films where the director has arranged the precise position of each extra, although the effect is apparently chaotic - or, indeed, Bowie's "1.Outside" album, where the ear cries out for a melodic line that never arrives but which eventually teaches you to listen to it for itself, without expecting "Rebel Rebel" or "Life on Mars".

There are things that I would have had less of - not least the narrator's continual describing of his mental and emotional states; but even that has a purpose, frustrating as it is, in preventing the reader from resting in the illusion of objectivity. There is no resting in this exhausting narrative. I imagine some readers will find the strangely one-dimensional connection between the two main male characters and the idealised female alienating and adolescent. Again, I think the intention is to run counter to the reader's expectations of the pattern that fictional relationships are generally allowed to take, in this case by creating a story where there is no real curve, progress or resolution, and where the woman involved is either long gone, a principle rather than a person, or interchangeable with other women who more or less resemble the "original". But this is one of those rare novels which, when you are reading it, is often frustrating, even nauseating or traumatic, but which afterwards, on reflection, begins to make a strange kind of sense.


Outline
Outline
by Rachel Cusk
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply satisfying, 15 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Outline (Paperback)
This is a deeply satisfying novel - and I write those words knowing that for a lot of readers, deep satisfaction is not sought after or necessary or to be found in the same places as others find it. Rachel Cusk has always had the problem that her novels cover such a wide range of genres, or semi-genres, or overlapping styles and schools. Her subject matter in the past has often led readers to approach her as if she delivered chick lit, or aga sagas, and they are inevitably disappointed by the way in which her stories fall outside those genres. I must confess that it is an instant relief, at the start of this novel, that the narrator leaves England for Greece and that most of the characters she meets in the following 250 pages are not English. Her previous book, The Bradshaw Variations, while as elegant and efficient as ever, seemed rather weary and burdened by the Englishness of its milieu - the middle classes in the southeast. It is impressive that Athens in Outline seems so vivid and true, just as the farm in In the Fold is so physically immediate; this is one of her great strengths. She is so good at those physical renderings, while at the same time discussing ideas in a way that keeps them vital and finding sympathetic and humorous twists in her characters, that at times in her other books she has appeared to lose herself in her talent for these things. I didn't find that with this one. There is a kind of immaculate control that allows the narrative to dip into spontaneous strangeness, and along with that control a generosity of spirit and openness that is new. I really loved the surprising shifts in dialogue that continually challenge the reader's assumptions, imitating life and clarifying it at the same time. The narrator is provided with an extra-sensitivity that remains just within the bounds of realism all the way through; you can say, for instance, that someone who has been through the trauma of divorce has just that kind of hypersensitivity, which can often be the case. But of course, the novel is not really realistic in its Decameronesque cascade of narratives, allowing us to see through many lives, or in the writing school sections, when it references Platonic discourse to sweet effect. Iris Murdoch is a presence here, with her playfulness and distance, her interest in how emotion is just one part of how people function and how emotion surfaces in unusual ways. This is a useful book, in how it winds its way so fairmindedly through the vexed relations between men and women. Novels are not expected to be useful or beautiful in these days of professional writing and utilitarian craft - or their usefulness is simply in terms of keeping the publishing industry afloat while killing the reader's time in the most functional way. For me, at any rate, this novel is both useful and beautiful, after its quiet fashion. For the first time with a Rachel Cusk novel - and here I admit that I still haven't read Arlington Park, which was eaten by my daughter's dog - I felt that the final pages made the perfect wrap.


The River (2014 Re-master)
The River (2014 Re-master)
Price: £5.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Glossy relaunch that doesn't patch the flaws, 9 Aug. 2015
The long-awaited remastering of this would-be epic long player has not had the effect I hoped for - I had hoped that the sound would be beefed up beyond recognition and punch from the speakers in the same way as the "River" outtakes on the "Tracks" box set. That hasn't happened; although there is distinctly more drum and bass, there is still a wispy and whispery quality to the mix, a kind of extra natural reverb thing. This must have been deliberate, a reaction to the effect on "Darkness" that Springsteen complains about on the "Promise" documentary, where he says that seventies studios all had carpets on the walls that deadened the sound. On "River", the sound is actually too spread out and echoey to deliver, and many have commented on its overly cool ambience, and the warmer ambience to be found on the "River's" abandoned predecessor, "The Ties that Bind".

So it is a frustrating album still, not just due to the sound but because of the track listing. We know from "Tracks" and from "The Ties that Bind" LP, helpfully sequenced by various folk on youtube, that Springsteen had oodles of songs for this LP - and then, of course, there were the songs not used on "Darkness", later collected on "The Promise". As it is, you wouldn't want to do without the beautiful, heartbreaking "Independence Day" or the title track itself, which somehow survives endless listens, and "Point Blank" and "Drive All Night" are essential. After that, the opening salvo of "Ties", "Sherry" and "Jackson Cage" is crucial and another "Ties" LP survivor, "I Wanna Marry You", is deeply lovely. But at this point I would always have "Loose Ends", "Where the Bands Are" and, doggarnit, "Cindy", over "Crush on You", "I'm a Rocker" or "Ramrod". You can see from the huge array of loud pop songs on "Tracks" that Springsteen lost his way from sheer abundance of choice. As it is, the album loses its intensity between the great opening and the majestically depressing but romantic closing sequence.

I'm sure others have done this already, but one day when I have time I will sit down and try to produce an ideal and definitive "River" from all available sources - and it must be said that it will bear little resemblance to this release.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 4, 2015 9:13 PM GMT


Under The Pink (Deluxe Edition)
Under The Pink (Deluxe Edition)
Price: £13.46

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The true start of a truly great story, 9 Jun. 2015
Tori Amos quite possibly has the best fans of any living musician, as these reviews demonstrate! I remember her arrival with Little Earthquakes, which I didn't take to at all at the time. As people have pointed out, it has a very different sound from the four classic albums that follow it, and very very different from Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, which are so fluid and quirky. I am still not a huge fan of that first album as a whole, although certain songs - "Winter", "Tear in Your Hand" - are essential. I became obsessed with TA when Boys for Pele came out, nearly twenty years ago now. Under the Pink is a midpoint between the really very out there Boys for Pele and the relatively conventional Earthquakes, with the flowing, liquid diamond sound of "Bells for Her" and the utterly utterly beautiful "Cloud on My Tongue" alongside the neat concept songs, "God" and "Past the Mission", a very satisfying take on Mary Magdalene's troubled relationship with Jesus that I used to listen to every day for about half a year, at one point. "Cloud on My Tongue" is mysterious, open to multiple interpretations - another big leap away from the more transparent material of the first album. On both this album and Pele, there is a constant hallucinogenic theme, a strong psychedelic streak that's like no one else's. As for the b-sides on this deluxe edition... I would have preferred a box set containing all the b-sides, such as people have assembled on the net, along with all those cover versions, remixes, and the various bits and pieces on film soundtracks and albums for special causes and so on. The Piano box set has a CD with a few of the b-sides, and others sprinkled over the other CDs, but with several important omissions - no "Thoughts", no "Mary". I would have bought such a box set. I imagine a lot of the Amos fanbase would have bought that box set, even those who have all the singles. I just hope some fifteen year-old kid standing in the only record shop left in town takes a chance on this rerelease with the redhead on a cloud, splurges £12 and discovers the endlessly liberating work of this most thoughtful and risk-taking of songwriters.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 21, 2015 4:23 PM BST


The Country Life
The Country Life
by Rachel Cusk
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Laugh out loud!, 30 July 2014
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This review is from: The Country Life (Paperback)
I don't know whether this is my favourite book by Rachel Cusk. I haven't read all of them - my copy of Arlington Park was eaten by my daughter's dog, appropriately enough, before I had a chance to read it, and I've not sufficiently recovered from my own dysfunctional Italian sojourn two years ago to read her Italy book. But this is certainly the funniest Cuskian outpouring, in my experience, not least because the heroine is so delightfully hapless. She struggles to free herself from her urban existence and in doing so encounters one of Rachel Cusk's domineering matriarchs, a wise child and the inevitable hound, as well as a handful of rural types, who might have just been stereoptypes if written by someone less skilled at individualising and finding foibles. Somehow she treads the line between pastiche, physical comedy and a really rather touching depiction of a relationship between a 29 year-old woman and a 17 year-old boy. The results - the wonderful account of eavesdropping, the vomiting and masturbation, the spot-on dialogue - often made me laugh out loud, discomforting my fellow passengers on the commuter train.


No Fixed Abode: A Journey Through Homelessness from Cornwall to London
No Fixed Abode: A Journey Through Homelessness from Cornwall to London
by Charlie Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Travels with Charlie, 13 Jan. 2014
Many travel writers smother their descriptions of people and places in their own view of themselves and try to sell a version of themselves that they think the reader will find attractive. This book does none of that; instead, it quietly subverts the expectations of travel writing, makes a virtue of honesty and, in doing so, changes the debate.

The subject of homelessness is fenced in with so many taboos that, as Charlie Carroll acknowledges, the only way for him to write about it is to explore it himself and ask questions of the homeless. But he also acknowledges that, for him, this is an exploration, a journey of discovery. He has a choice about where he sleeps, he has a home to go to, and what draws him to explore the life of rough sleepers is his innate sense of adventure. As he points out, those who sleep rough are not on an adventure, as a rule - and he delves successfully into what drives people to live on the streets and what leads them to stay there. Through his candour about his motives and his ordinary responses, occasional freak-outs, momentary friendships and frank horror at what he finds, he bisects the worlds of the haves and the have nots and treads a line between us and them. He is Us in the world of Them and Them in the world of Us, allowing Us to see what he can see - the extreme vulnerability of the homeless, but also what they are like to talk to and hang out with.

And it is refreshing, in a world of glib solutions and endless blue sky thinking, to have someone base a book around unanswered questions. A lot of writers would have been tempted to put a spin on the experience and conjure up through language alone some kind of bogus conclusion. By its very nature, that bogus conclusion will be one that gives comfort to the bourgeois reader, to the average buyer of paperbacks, sitting on his sofa with a book and a cup of cocoa. Charlie Carroll makes no pretence of having achieved his aim and offers no such comfort. But his book does have a concrete outcome - it changes how we perceive people we walk past every day on our way to work, and goes some way to making those people visible.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower [DVD]
The Perks of Being a Wallflower [DVD]
Dvd ~ Logan Lerman
Price: £3.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars See it!, 11 Jan. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I doubt I can add anything new to the dozens of five star reviews this film has already had here, but I have to say that I had read the book and didn't "get" it and I watched the film and completely got it. I love the naturalness of the acting, so unselfconscious and unshowy. The cast are so convincing - they are those people, totally. And I would be the first to get all socialist realist about the first world problems in the suburbs, but the story finds something universal in this suburban coming of age story, in the same way "Donnie Darko" does. You never once think about poor little rich kids. The camera work, the lighting, the script are so well judged. You never feel like a voyeur of somebody's emotional life, so unusual. And I loved the attachment to retro, the Anglophile streak a mile wide, the genuine love for those great shards of eighties culture, the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins. I loved the straightforwardness and honesty about some very difficult subjects. What the film says about sex and belonging seems to me helpful and useful and right. All this and it's good-looking and charming, the whole thing. Five stars.


Reckoning
Reckoning
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £19.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dead Reckoning, strictly speaking!, 9 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Reckoning (Audio CD)
This is a strangely unrepresentative recording, showing a side of the Dead that had little exposure, amazingly, given the hundreds of concerts they gave over the decades. I first heard "Reckoning" in the early 1980s on vinyl, and loved it long before I understood the band's main appeal - the long passages of electric weirdness. As other reviewers have said, these edited snippets come from a series of 1980 gigs when they briefly went back to the 1970 format, preceding the long electric set with a shorter acoustic one. The best known example of that era is the epic Harpur College concert of May 1970, preserved on Dick's Picks volume 8. But the playing in 1980 bears little resemblance to that of 1970. On "Reckoning",they aim to recreate elements their electric set but without electric guitars, and with Brent Mydland limited to piano and harpsichord. The result is strangely moving. As people have said before me, the versions of "Bird Song" and "China Doll" are hushed and intimate - and I've never heard better takes on either of those songs. "Bird Song", only recently restored to their sets, sounds as fresh as if its subject, Janis Joplin, had only just gone to her grave, while "China Doll" has the sound of a song at last fulfilling its potential. The same could almost be said of "Cassidy", here a rushing, tumbling ride, coming off the crest of Lesh's electric base to burst joyously into its final "flight of the seabirds". Even with all those wonderful "Cassidys" of 1976 and 1977, the "Reckoning" version remains the one I go back to. On top of that magical trio, there is a wonderful, whispering "It Must Have Been the Roses" and a beautiful "Ripple".

Alongside these originals are the traditional numbers, including a tense, urgent take on "Jack-a-Roe", one of those folk songs that Garcia makes his own, whatever his limitations as a singer. But it's misleading to say that the Dead were "going back to their roots"; the sound is not primitive or sparse, and is certainly a long way from the sweetly ramshackle sound of 1970, when players seem to stop mid-solo to pass the joint. It's still a campfire sound, but full and warm, with all the intricacy you would expect of Garcia and Lesh in tandem, and not unlike the balance created for MTV Unplugged some years later. The remastering has added to its clarity, without taking anything away from its natural mute, a quietness that makes you lean in to listen.

As an afterthought, I have to say that "Reckoning" is, to my ears, greatly preferable to the electric companion discs of "Dead Set", where the band sound - for the first time - simply slick. Tight is one thing - slick is another. As the decade wore on, they alternated between slickness and sloppiness, suffering also through their ageing repertoire. With the exception of the unfailingly mysterious "Althea", the relatively small number of new songs they wrote together after 1978 were inferior to the "Row Jimmys" and "Jack Straws" of the early 70s. Rather than vamping the blues - a job largely left to Bob Weir - or traipsing through Dylan, it's a shame they didn't make up the shortfall by adding in more American folk songs, and folk songs in general. "Reckoning" shows how that might have played out.


Father of the Bride [DVD] [1992]
Father of the Bride [DVD] [1992]
Dvd ~ Steve Martin
Offered by A ENTERTAINMENT
Price: £3.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars (Why Have They Remade) Father of the Bride?, 29 Dec. 2013
There are remakes and remakes, sure, but this one about takes the biscuit. A more inane monument to the myth of American money-love it would be hard to find, with its tedious itemising of the cost of the daughter's wedding sandwiched in between scenes from suburban life, as trite as they are corny and as lacking in life as they are riddled with banalities. It is a bit like being invited into a neighbour's house and being forced to listen to endless stories about his house, his car and - yes - how much his daughter's wedding dress cost, while staring in amazement at his pastel walls, his pastel floors and his pastel brain.

The central pairing, of the perfectly straight Kimberly Williams and the unbelievably vacuous fiance, George Newbern, says all that needs to be said about the ambitions of this film. You cannot imagine these two losers reading a book or even going to the cinema, except to see "Dumbo" perhaps, or some fratboy classic. They are like blank pages, whose supposed interests and passions are pencilled in by the scriptwriter but never in any way made real by the acting. Their one inevitable tiff is miserably underplayed, when Kimberly is "concerned" that, by giving her a blender, her future husband signals his intentions that she should be some tame domestic slave in the corner of the kitchen. You feel like saying to her, "So that was your feminist rebellion against plodding patriarchal values? That was it? That was the debate?"

Whatever you think about Tarantino's repeated use of bad jokes and crazy violence to pepper his plots, it's as well to remember that this is what American cinema had come to in those grim pre-Quentin years. You long - or certainly I did - for somebody, anybody, preferably Michael Madsen and John Travolta but anyone would do, to burst through the front door and take them all hostage. You long for people with codenames talking about the meaning of "Like a Virgin" while planning to rob a bank. You long for irony of any kind whatsoever.

As for the stars, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, memories of great moments from these two only serve to illustrate the depths to which they fall here. Just keep saying to yourself "Annie Hall, Annie Hall", and see how far it gets you. Diane Keaton clearly can't remember making it herself, or she surely would have taken one look at this script, thrown it in the air and left it for a TV actress. This is a form of light entertainment that vacillates between insulting your intelligence and force-feeding you with visions of total boredom as the cure to that nagging question, "Why are we here?"
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 23, 2015 11:42 PM GMT


Sunshine Daydream (Veneta, OR, 8/27/72)
Sunshine Daydream (Veneta, OR, 8/27/72)
Price: £19.01

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great place to start, 26 Dec. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I've seen some strange recommendations as a "place to start" for those coming new to the Dead. People often suggest "Live Dead", which seems too early to me, from 1969, and "Dead Set", which is already too late, in 1980. One suggestion would be to start in the spring of 1977 by downloading Dick's Picks volume 3, an unbelievable feast of virtuosity - especially in the second set. But this is even better, by virtue not least of the DVD that comes with the three CDs of music. It's strange to think what a rip-off CDs were in their first decade or so and pre-amazon, clocking in at £16.99 for a single CD sometimes, for a new release. Veneta is a genuine bargain, and a perfect introduction to the Grateful Dead at a point when their early rawness was still evident but the mad versatility that sets them apart from other bands was in evidence.

The concert film is a revelation, a slice of history, catching the counterculture undefeated on its own turf - Ken Kesey's ranch in Oregon - on a very hot day. People in the crowd and backstage are freaking out; kids run across in front of band mid-song; men and women take off all their clothes and perform some early five rhythms dancing. The band seem to groove on in their own space, undistracted except by the legendary sound problems that dogged them throughout their long career. The "Dark Star" in particular is wild, scary and constantly threatens to go beyond the limits of endurance and invention, passing through phase after phase and turning into a journey all in itself. It is a piece - not really a song - that can be daunting, I know; it seems easier to stick to the country rock Grateful Dead or the melodic jams such as "Bird Song". But this "Dark Star" teaches you how to listen to "Dark Stars" in toto, bucking and weaving while the sun sets, Garcia tuning his guitar partway in, with its occasional forays into dissonance that recall modern classical composers such as John Adams. But they could do everything, really, the Dead, and certainly between 1972 and 1977 they did everything very well indeed.

As an afterthought, I would point out that they were not like any other band. Of course, it is generally not the idea with music in popular culture to be objective; the whole point is that we care about music because of context, age and generation, the people we knew or the scene we were in when a song came out. With the Dead, this is even truer. I wouldn't call myself a Deadhead, but even I would listen to stuff from the relatively empty years after the departure of Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux - and when I say stuff I mean whole gigs, and when I say years I mean decades. Objectively, they didn't really go much further than they'd already been after 1977 - although, of course, there are moments. But to really appreciate the Dead, you do have to buy into the philosophy to a certain extent. This concert, and the visual element in particular, reveal that philosophy in all its beautiful chaos. You can see it in Garcia's eyes as he plays - a commitment to an exploration that few other musicians would even dream of making.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 11, 2014 9:04 PM BST


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