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Andy Miller (Nottingham, UK)

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The Stephen Sondheim Collection [DVD]
The Stephen Sondheim Collection [DVD]

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What's in this?, 15 Dec 2011
Come on publishers/distributors, tell us what's on these 4 discs in this collection. It ought to be briliant but I'm not buying until I know what's on sale. (If I've missed something please tell me and I'll withdraw this review)
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 13, 2012 2:41 PM GMT

A View From The Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin
A View From The Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin
by Chris Mullin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Self deprecating, indiscreet and highly readable - an insider's account of New Labour's doomed trajectory, 5 Jun 2010
In a strange and unsettling moment I found myself about ten pages from the end of this 558 page block of a book just as, on the television in the background, Gordon Brown stepped out to the podium in Downing Street and announced his resignation as prime minister.

Chris Mullin records in these published diaries his period as part of the New Labour government from 1999 until 2005 when, on the last page and four days after the re-election of Labour in 2005, Tony Blair in a brief and unceremonious telephone call informs him that he `will have to let him go' from ministerial office. The end, in politics, often comes quickly and brutally and with a sense, finally, of anti-climax.

I had first come across Mullin as the backbench MP who campaigned long and hard for the release of the Birmingham Six on the grounds of a miscarriage of justice. He also wrote the novel on which the television play `A Very British Coup', screened in the 1980s Thatcher Years, was based. This told the story of the destabilisation of a left wing Labour Government by the covert activities of the British establishment, activities culminating in its replacement by a much more `acceptable' political arrangement. With credentials such as these, plus his journalistic and committee activities centring on international and civil liberties issues, Mullin was seen either as principled, persistent and brave or as dangerous, deluded and subversive depending on one's own partisan standpoint.

Personally, I was interested to see how Mullin had, in public, to curb his radical instincts at times in the name of collective government. In addition to the `big issues' debates with others in the Commons, in his constituency and behind the scenes, Mullin also uses his diary to work out his own opinions and record his doubts and misgivings over various issues. Away from the defining political events of the New Labour years, Mullin also provides a series of scurrilous pen portraits of well known political figures. And to ground his account, to bring it closer to the personal concerns of more of his readers, Mullin brings in everyday incidents involving his young children, his wife and his ageing parents.

John Prescott, his boss at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, emerges as an even more impossible person than the many existing caricatures already in circulation suggest. Bombastic and totally dominating staff meetings that are billed as `discussions' with hectoring monologues, Mullin records his utter desperation with Prescott before, later in the book, coming round to the view that, despite all these characteristics, he is at root a decent and genuinely committed politician. And Jack Straw, who emerges as a constantly diplomatic and canny figure, must have been surprised to see in print his off-the-cuff description of George Bush and his inner circle as `... a bunch of bastards'.

But the central figure in these diaries, perhaps more than Mullin himself, is Tony Blair, referred to always as `The Man'. It is clear that Mullin is in awe of Blair's oratorical and leadership qualities and that this respect is what leads Mullin to temper his natural inclination to disagree with, and confront, him over a number of issues, most prominently, of course, Iraq. The diaries thus provide a fascinating account of a journey taken by many British people at the time, the slowly growing suspicion that Tony Blair's judgement, and then his reassurances, could not be relied upon. Mullin was, of course, much closer than the rest of us and it is the period of his sustained agonising before consolidating his opposition to the war, that is probably the central feature of this book, providing an account, sometimes from an insider's close perspective, of the crucial turning point and irreversible decline in New Labour's popularity and credibility.

Due to various distractions, I am concluding this review a few weeks after first commencing it and find myself wondering whether a new young political diarist, still fresh from a vigorous rub down with the other chaps in some changing room on the edge of the playing fields of England, has already completed his first few pages - `Bring the foxhounds back out! They've gone and elected me as an MP and now it seems we are going to be in some sort of Coalition.......'

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Firmament, 7 Feb 2010
This book has been garnering a host of admirers, from writers such as Alexander McCall Smith and Phillip Pullman to commentators from the heavier end of the celebrity spectrum such as Brian Eno and Stephen Fry.

There are clearly many within the forty `tales' that are stunningly original, witty and laced with wisdom. The subtitle and all the reviews outline the novel structure and conceit of the work, namely very short accounts - one to three pages each - riffing on different takes on the `afterlife' and by way of that, God, the purpose of life, philosophical, psychological, theological or political conundrums.

The notion, for example, that much of our existence takes `place in the eyes, ears and fingertips of others' that, once one has left the earth, is `stored in scattered heads around the globe' playfully elaborates on themes that have already occupied the `ologies' and isms' of more than a few sombre academics.

The main reason that these undoubted qualities do not lead to my doling out the five star accolade concerns the cumulative effect of these forty tales being collected within one volume. I can see how each short piece would be a star turn as a regular feature in a journal or a literate magazine, where reading one would definitely whet my appetite for the appearance of the next, one week, one month or whatever the publication interval was, later. As a compendium however, I found myself eventually wearying of them, mainly because of the way the format of self contained brevity created for me a repetitiveness that diminished the freshness and distinctiveness of the individual pieces. By about three quarters of the way through I was hungry for a sense of development, the fleshing out of a narrative or the elaboration of a set of ideas.

While I'm sure that the cult status of this little book will continue to grow and attract new devotees, I personally found myself pleased to be finishing it, with my motivation to return to, and complete, `Crime and Punishment' having been refreshed by the excursion.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 20, 2011 10:32 AM BST

Alma Cogan: A Novel
Alma Cogan: A Novel
by Gordon Burn
Edition: Paperback

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Both sad and uplifting, but with moments of real horror, 9 Jan 2010
This review is from: Alma Cogan: A Novel (Paperback)
From the start it's clear that this is unlikely to be a conventional or predictable text, either in its content or its structure. On the front cover of my copy is the stylised representation of Alma Cogan's face taken from the cover of an issue of `Fans Library', a 1950s magazine. Adjacent to it, the face of Myra Hindley, the colours bizarrely transposed - purple hair, orange face.

Alma Cogan, who I can just remember from the black and white television of my childhood, was one of Britain's most popular stars of the 1950s. She was known as `the girl with a chuckle in her voice', wore extravagant self-designed dresses and, after a final hit record in 1961, was swept into semi-obscurity by the raucous explosion that was the Beatles, the Stones and the rest of them. She died in 1966 at the age of 34.

Except that, in Gordon Burn's novel, she didn't. Here, Alma Cogan is looking back on her life, on her years in and then subsequently out of the limelight, from a standpoint in 1986.

Straight away I had some worries and reservations about the appropriation of a `real life' figure for novelistic purposes, much in the same way, I suppose, as those recently unsettled by David Peace's fictionalising of Brian Clough's brief spell of command at Leeds United. Added to that, the cover's heavy hint that the Moors Murderers were to be somehow woven into the narrative seemed discomforting and heavy with sensationalism and exploitation.

However, Gordon Burn's prose is superb and drew me into a suspension of my concerns. The `Alma Cogan' he creates here clashed terribly with my preconceptions and assumptions about a dimly-remembered figure from what, despite my better judgement, I continued to see as a simpler and more straightforward era. His creation, certainly not the `bubbly airhead' of my rememberings, seemed to have taken herself off in the interim to an Open University degree in semiotics or cultural studies. The novel helped me suspend my initial disbelief and warm to this person who had adjusted in her later years of faded celebrity to a life of pragmatism and ordinariness, somebody able to appreciate both the psychological and physiological rush created by fame, and the tawdry, cynical and sometimes violent manipulations of a ruthless media industry. Burn's Alma proves to be an observant and insightful guide, puncturing the facade of mass entertainment's bonhomie and worthy proclamations and the ugly conspiracies between providers and gluttonous consumers, while still retaining sympathetic affection for the human need for dreams and fantasy. As the novel moves to its unsettling and deeply distressing climax, where the atrocities of the Moors Murderers are fashioned into an awful link to the main narrative, I found myself profoundly discomforted and chilled, in a way that few books, if any, have affected me.

In summary, I ended up finding this book, which I hadn't expected to enjoy, immensely impressive. The conceit of extending the life and career of a real celebrity works brilliantly in that `Alma Cogan' was already a creation of the nascent advertising and publicity industries. By emphasising further the fabrication, Burns brilliantly illuminates the collusion that we, `the public', volunteer ourselves for. A sad, uplifiting, observant tale with moments of real horror that have continued to haunt this particular reader.

Old School
Old School
by Tobias Wolff
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful reading experience - thoughtful, celebratory and elegant, 30 Dec 2009
This review is from: Old School (Paperback)
Set in the early 1960s, the old school of the title is a prestigious American boys school, for its time relatively liberal in many of its values but snobbish in its approach to, particularly, literature. The narrator is a scholarship boy who carefully conceals this aspect of his background, along with his Jewishness. The central thrust of the plot is the literary competitions focussed on the termly visit of a famous writer - an ageing Robert Frost, a combative Ayn Rand and, as the novel moves smoothly towards its climax, an advice-dispensing Ernest Hemmingway. The boys produce poems or short stories to be judged by the eminent termly guest, with the winner granted an hour's private audience in the headmaster's study or garden.

Within this framework, Wolff fashions a sensitive and witty novel - an evocation of time and place and a society on the edge of convulsive change, the beautiful and cloistered security of a privileged and cut-off subculture, thoughtful reflections on major literary debates and controversies, - and all in a most clear and compelling writing style. The latter, whilst never abstruse and erudite, nor overloaded with poetics, creates a beautiful reading experience - thoughtful, celebratory and elegant.

In this way, Wolff alludes to issues that particularly foxed me as a teenage student - the detection of authenticity in literature, the battle between artifice and experience, the primal human need for narrative. By showing us readers how such matters translate into, and can be unobtrusively embedded within, superb story telling, Wolf throws aside arid and self-serving debates while at the same time brilliantly illustrating why they persist in occupying critics and more seriously-inclined readers.

Had this book actually been available in the period in which it is set, I might well have been able to sign up for and enjoy higher level study of literature. A wonderful book, one to eke out by daily rationing, whilst fighting the intense temptation to devour it in one sitting.

As I Lay Dying
As I Lay Dying
by Faulkner William
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An admirable and impressive book but not quite the emotionally rewarding experience I would have liked, 15 Dec 2009
This review is from: As I Lay Dying (Paperback)
Faulkner was a Nobel Prize winner and wrote `As I Lay Dying' early in his authorial career in six summer weeks in 1929 during night-shift work at a local power station. For me, Faulkner's name had long been in the background, eclipsed by other Americans such as Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, and had this not been a selected book for my local reading group, I doubt I would ever have made its close acquaintance. And my vague misconceptions of Faulkner's style and place would have never been corrected.

The book's structure, some sixty or more short chapters, with a few of these no more than a couple of sentences in length, is the first surprising feature. The next is the jostling crowd of multiple voices, mostly from the Bundren family, in whose name the various chapters are presented. The vernacular and other expository devices employed by these characters demands a reader's attention and the jaggedly unfolding narrative proves mildly disorientating and requires a little more concentration than the slim volume at first suggests. All of these features combined to make `As I Lay Dying' a far more original and experimental text for its period, than I had anticipated.

But do they make for a rewarding or engaging reading experience? For me, on balance, they did but this story of a poor family taking the coffin and body of matriarch, Anse Bundren, back to her home town of Jefferson, Mississippi did require some application.

The pace and coherence seemed to change dramatically at about a third to half way and from then on I did find myself increasingly unable to put it down despite still feeling at some distance from the characters. In the earlier stages, the unconventional approach brought fewer rewards. The multiple voices did not seem to provide distinct and consistent perspectives that could then be knitted into an overall narrative, nor did these separations enable me as a reader to experience those deep satisfactions that can arise from seeing the whole of a novel as greater than the sum of the parts.

Faulkner's use of language brings a great poetic force to the writing and it was this dramatic brilliance that carried me through some of the more demanding sections. Plot lines left dangling in places and the voice of one character, the farm worker Darl with his cultured and erudite vocabulary seeming inexplicably improbable, might at times strain the engagement of a reader expecting a more conventional work. This book probably demands more disciplined study than my once-through general read afforded. Or, perhaps, the first time through should just wash over and orientate the reader towards a more deeply satisfying second sitting. If I had taken such an approach, then perhaps this undoubtedly admirable and impressive book would also have provided me with a richer and more emotionally rewarding reading experience.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
by Pierre Bayard
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shelving the whimsical alongside the profound, 25 Nov 2009
As I was reading this book I was agreeing with a review I had read that suggested that its content was far more serious, more profound even, than its provocatively silly title implied. By the time I had finished I was veering back towards judging the book by its cover, or more specifically its title. On further reflection still - and this book has provoked my continuing attention - I am back somewhere between these two positions.

Bayard is a French Literature academic and he has written a playful treatise into the nature of reading, illustrated by examination of a number of very disparate texts. He asks the seemingly simple question `What does it mean to say one has read a book?' and follows this up by presenting a number of challenges to the most obvious answers. If we have `read' a book but have forgotten everything about it, maybe even forgotten that we have ever had any contact with it, then in what sense do we mean that we have `read' it? Conversely, if we have, say, read a detailed review of another, or heard it discussed somewhere, or if it is among those publications that have seeped into so many crevices in our culture, and we are perhaps therefore conversant with many of its features, in what sense can we be said `not to have read' it, especially by comparison to the first, forgotten volume?

"The uncertainty of the border between reading and not reading will lead me to reflect more generally on the ways we interact with books" Bayard states in his Preface and this he then does wittily and, for me, for the most part, engagingly for the best part of 200 pages.

The book is divided into three main sections - `Ways of Not Reading', `Literary Confrontations' and `Ways of Behaving' and, within each, four chapters (with titles like `Books You Have Heard Of', `Encounters With Someone You Love' and `Not Being Ashamed') flesh out, sometimes a little repetitively I felt, Bayard's main arguments. Each chapter examines a particular text for illustrative purposes and these range from books I personally was not aware of, through those like Graham Greene's `The Third Man' to even include discussion of one film, `Groundhog Day'.

Bayard's central thesis is that to be able to talk about books, to be able to live the `literary life,' to be considered `well read', one has to appreciate where any particular book is located within the immense library of all books that have been written. It is this sense and knowledge of place - of genres, traditions, innovations, similarities and contrasts - rather than a detailed knowledge of the book's content, wherein one may become hopelessly lost, that constitutes a cultured and cultivated approach to the world of books, a life that Bayard argues is essentially social rather than solitary.

Far more than a bluffer's guide to literature, this book takes an argument that could probably have been delivered within an extended essay and embellishes major points with a playful tour of familiar and obscure works. Aimed perhaps more at those - academics, students, critics - for whom talking or writing about books is a career requirement, this idiosyncratic little book should however also interest and challenge the general reader prepared to tolerate the whimsical and the profound being shelved adjacently in her or his own `interior library'.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 16, 2013 6:32 PM GMT

Fugitive Pieces
Fugitive Pieces
by Anne Michaels
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fugitive pieces capturing a deeply poetic humanity, 20 Aug 2009
This review is from: Fugitive Pieces (Paperback)
This book drips with praise, all over the back cover and four inside pages too. John Berger calls it the most important book he has read in forty years and the Guardian Fiction prize and the Orange are thrown in for extra measure. Anne Michaels is an award winning poet and Fugitive Pieces, published in 1996, is her first novel.

From the very first page, the author's poetic credentials are apparent and, after hurrying through a brief chapter or so, I wondered whether I needed to slow down in order to appreciate more fully the imagery and allusion within the elegantly crafted sentences. Was this to be a novel of scope and grandeur or a set of crafted paragraphs, beautiful but primarily technical exercises? As my reader's ear became more attuned to the style and content of the book, I soon realised that this novel would achieve both aims and moreover provide a sumptuous, emotionally engaging and riveting reading experience. Like one of the reviewers in the frontispiece, I too struggled and failed to resist reading paragraphs aloud, probably more to re-experience and anchor the language for myself than for my companion's entertainment or education.

This is a novel of character, place, atmosphere and ideas built around the Holocaust and its aftermath and with a focus on two main characters. Jacob Beer escapes from the Nazis in Poland at seven years of age with the help of a Greek archaeologist, Athos Roussos - `scientist, scholar, middling master of languages'. The major part of the novel then follows Jacob's life from the war years spent in hiding at Athos' home on the island of Zakynthos, through their relocation to Toronto after the war and on into Jacob's adult life. A second shorter part tells the story of Ben, a young Toronto-based academic who is studying Beer and is the son of concentration camp survivors. His parents' lives in the aftermath of the war contrast with that of Jacob's, helping to bring home the variations in the effects of grief, loss and guilt pervading forever the lives of the survivors.

Place is so beautifully evoked. I wanted to board a plane for Zakynthos that very day. Toronto too became very familiar, as I wandered the city with Jacob and Athos on their geological and archaeological rambles. Ideas abound, fascinating anecdotes and observations on subjects as diverse as history, culture, meteorology, science, polar exploration and much, much more.

There is no convenient `plot resolution' in this book and indeed it is constructed from an impressive set of `fugitive pieces', paragraphs and short sections, jumping in time and space but never losing the reader. This spectacular style communicates so successfully, at least to me, the nature of memory traumatised by horror and utter degradation.

For the first half to two thirds of this book, I was wondering while I read whether this might not be the best book I had ever read. By the end, and after a little reflection, I don't think it is at the absolute pinnacle of my personal list but it is certainly extremely high. The switch in narrator and some of the new plot directions in that latter section detracted from the overall just a little for me. But this is still, in my opinion, an exceptional, moving and brilliantly crafted piece of work.

The Rings Of Saturn
The Rings Of Saturn
by W G Sebald
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful - companionship and enrichment for life's solitary journeys, 12 Jun 2009
This review is from: The Rings Of Saturn (Paperback)
The back cover of this book captures beautifully for me the strange, melancholy and yet uplifting nature of this original and delicate text:

`A walking tour through the haunted landscape of the past, in the company of the exiled and departed'

` .... a book unlike any other in contemporary literature, an intricately patterned and endlessly thought-provoking meditation on the transience of all things human'.

WG Sebald does indeed describe a walk that he undertook along the coast of Suffolk over a number of days in 1992 but from the very first page it becomes clear that this will be no ordinary travelogue. The book opens with the author describing how, a year after his walk, he was `taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility'. Being able to see only a small rectangle of sky from the window of his eight floor room, he becomes `overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot'.

And so begins a rich and meandering set of accounts of all manner of topics, some provoked by what he has seen and others by associations with places that he is aware of by virtue of his immensely broad and scholarly reading. One passage even consists of a memory of an eccentric household with whom he took lodgings in Ireland years before and is inspired by a dream he has one night during his walk. Sebald wears his learning lightly and his tales and accounts of topics completely alien to me, such as the history of silkworm farming from the ancient Chinese to the twentieth century Nazis, and the life and lost love of the French writer Chateaubriand, are told so engagingly and seemingly from such a fresh perspective, that I was drawn fully into them. There is so much to learn from this book without ever once the reader, or at least this reader, feeling lumbered with a textbook.

But there is potentially more to this enchanting book. As in Austerlitz, the only other book by Sebald that I have so far read, there are a number of grainy black and white photographs, maps and snippets of archival documents. In Austerlitz these were used to support a work of fiction, to confuse and stimulate the curiosity of the reader. Was the author being serious, playful or somehow both at the same time? So too, in this book, there are hints that all may not be what it seems, that there may be invention, embroidery and tall tale telling but corralled, as in Austerlitz, into serving a deeply humanitarian endeavour.

As a completely original and unconventional text, full of rumination on the human condition, sweeping across centuries and continents whilst also rooted in a landscape often painted as featureless and bleak, this is a wonderful book and one to return to for companionship and enrichment during life's solitary journeys.

The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Albert Camus
Edition: Paperback

82 of 87 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does this book still pack the same ethical and philosophical punch it once did?, 23 Feb 2009
One of the very few books that I have ended up reading twice, I first came across The Outsider long ago in 1962 when I was 17 and have just revisited it recently with my reading group, extremely curious to know whether the strong impression it originally made upon me would be rekindled.

In the main, it was not. Coming to this novel in adolescence as one of the first `serious' books I had encountered, and just before the social upheavals of the 1960s began, I found the story and fate of Mersault, who could not or would not lie or express the standard emotions that were expected of him, quite shattering of the world in which I had grown up. Over the intervening decades, I carried a memory of Mersault as a noble hero and of the type of society that I had grown up in as a hypocritical conspiracy against the expression of honesty of feeling. As much or more than Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan, it was this book that made me a small town, coffee bar existentialist.

On re-reading at a different age and in a different era, I was struck by a number of impressions. Mersault appears less heroic and emptier of human warmth. He tacitly supports his neighbour, a pimp, in his violence towards his girlfriend and the novel hints more at his racism in the motiveless murder of an Algerian on the beach, around which the novel revolves. His patterns of thinking seem now far less idealistic and almost autistic in character.

However, the sense of place and especially the evocation of the heat, sun, sea, the streets of the town, the courtroom and his prison cell remain convincing and beautifully expressed in clear, clean prose. Mersault's world view and his in-the-moment limited expectations still engaged me as a study of character, but less as an existential pioneer and martyr and more as an unreflective and mildly hedonistic individual.

I would still strongly recommend this book for its historical importance. Written during the second world war when Camus was fighting in the French Resistance, I first read it in early 1960s when publicly departing from the standard loyalties to school, church and state still felt like a dangerous undertaking. The book will now be judged by first-time readers against the mores of present times, times which have been fashioned by myriad forces including, as an early artistic tour de force, this novel.

My grading is an amalgam of my original and my current impressions - I hope this book continues to provoke and be appreciated.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2011 9:11 AM BST

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