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John Self "www.theasylum.wordpress.com" (Belfast, NI)

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Restless
Restless
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mother, Teacher, Lover, Spy, 30 Jan. 2007
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This review is from: Restless (Paperback)
William Boyd will finally achieve the wider readership he deserves, now that his new novel Restless has won the Costa Novel Award and - more importantly in terms of sales - been given pride of place on Richard & Judy's sofa. He's been writing varied and engaging novels for twenty-five years, which manage to worm their way into every aspect of their characters' lives, and in turn sink deep into the reader's mind.

Restless is loosely a spy story - a young English woman discovers that her elderly mother is a Russian emigre who was a British agent during the second world war. I wasn't hooked from the start, but the book got its claws well into me by the halfway point. Like most of Boyd's books, it's all very traditional storytelling in a way, which could mean humdrum but he manages to pull it off with apparently little effort. As always, it's the immensity of detail and aspect which impressed me in Restless: all aspects of the characters' lives are explored, and points of narrative interest abound, from the double-historic time frame (2006 novel set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1939-42), the mix of fact and fiction (did the British secret service really work undercover to bluff the Americans into the second world war?), and the simple novelty (for me) of a female protagonist - or two - in a spy story.

The central 'twist' is not terribly surprising because it's so clearly foreshadowed, and the tension of whether Eva Delectorskaya will survive the war is obviously discharged by the knowledge that she is still alive in 1976, but the story still grips and the settings (of the long hot summer in 1976, of wartime Britain when people really didn't know if their country would survive, and of America at the same time when nobody really cared what was going on across the pond) are well realised. Boyd does not suit all tastes, but for me he's a reliable source of pleasure. If Restless is your first experience of Boyd, then I recommend among his earlier novels The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions and Any Human Heart.


This Book Will Save Your Life
This Book Will Save Your Life
by A. M. Homes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Homes Sweet Homes, 26 Jan. 2007
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On the penultimate page of This Book Will Save Your Life, the protagonist Richard Novak thinks about a story he has been told and wonders:

"Was there some larger meaning - was it a parable, an allegory, or just a story?"

It's clearly intended to apply to the novel itself, which is quite one of the strangest things I've read in some time. On the one hand, all the events are dealt in a deadpan, somewhat blank prose, so there's a benevolent straightforwardness to it all. On the other hand, many of the events are highly implausible, and it is only the style which keeps it from seeming either forced or - the dreaded - 'quirky.' For example at one point Novak finds himself on the television news helping a movie star to rescue a horse from a subsiding hole in the ground outside his Los Angeles home. Ah, his home:

"Above and below, a chain of houses climbs the canyon wall: a social chain, an economic chain, a food chain. The goal is to be on top, king of the hill - to win. Each person looks down on the next, thinking they somehow have it better, but there is always someone else either pressing up from below or looking down from above. There is no way to win."

And it must be this realisation which has jolted Novak's body out of its routine, and broken him away from his controlled, orderly and efficient life as a market trader ("placing his bets, going long and short, seeing how far up or down he can go, riding an invisible electronic wave") to fill him with an excruciating physical pain. This is how the novel begins: with the sudden crushing pain - never diagnosed - which sends Novak to the emergency room and out into the world, into the mess and fuss of humanity, for the first time in years.

On the way home he breaks his strictly balanced diet to buy donuts, and befriends the shop owner. He talks to a crying woman in the supermarket. He reignites an uneasy relationship with his son. In short, he re-enters the human race.

And this, really, is all that happens. There is a tremendous amount of detail, for the best part of 400 pages, and an awful lot goes on. But it would be perfectly possible to read the book as fundamentally whimsical and inconsequential. Or to view its story of one man's "dramatic emotional thaw" as superficial and sentimental. And this is how I began thinking of it: me, with my innate tendency to view pretty much anything featuring simple happiness as somehow sentimental. However Homes cleverly avoids these accusations, by the uninflected blankness of the prose and what seems an almost bold and perverse determination to tell a straight story, and so I was forced to look beyond my handy (lazy) dismissal and find a surprisingly moving, heartfelt tale, which is simple without being simplistic.

Its curious mix of the banal and the bizarre reminded me somewhat of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, and even of Haruki Murakami. It's a bold choice for the Richard & Judy list this year because it will divide opinion, and a wise choice too for that very reason - everyone who reads it, I imagine, will get something different from it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 11, 2013 8:09 AM BST


Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir
Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir
by Gore Vidal
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vale for Vidal, 9 Jan. 2007
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If ever your life feels a little thin or uneventful, blame Gore Vidal. He's had enough event and diversion in his time for five or six of us, and he keeps making us feel even worse by not only telling us about them in superbly written memoirs, but looking out of the cover at us all handsome and assured, both in youth and old age.

First there was Palimpsest (1995), dealing with his early life, which Martin Amis called "a tremendous read, down and dirty from start to finish. It is also a proud and serious and truthful book." Now Vidal gives us Point to Point Navigation, subtitled A Memoir 1964 - 2006.

And it is full of everything we have come to expect. Strange stories of all the great and good of the American twentieth century, from the very very famous to the known-in-certain-circles. Vidal's life has been not just more eventful than most, but lived at a more rarefied level; he was brought up among the renowned and the ruling classes, and so the line for him between the personal and the political has always been a thin one.

Quote:

"During the next quarter century I re-dreamed the Republic's history, which I have always regarded as a family affair. But what was I to do with characters that were - are - not only famous but even preposterous? When my mother was asked why, after three famous marriages, she did not try for a fourth, she observed, "My first husband had three balls. My second, two. My third, one. Even I know enough not to press my luck.""

There, he is talking - initially - about his series of novels, Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Hollywood and The Golden Age, 'factional' accounts of the USA, which he refers to collectively as 'Narratives of Empire' but which his publishers keep insisting on branding as 'Narratives of a Golden Age.' Throughout Point to Point Navigation, Vidal is at pains to mention his fictional output at every opportunity, making a vain (in both senses) attempt to mark his patch in literary history as a novelist, rather than wit, essayist and polymath. But he can hardly be dissatisfied by how he is already remembered.

And there is a good reason for his interest in remembrance, and how he will be viewed in retrospect. Vidal is now 81 years old, and the spectre of death shadows most of the book. There will not, we suspect, be a third volume. He is writing in "the awful year 2005," after his first full year spent without his partner of 53 years, Howard Auster, and making the move for health reasons back to LA and away from his beloved La Rondinaia, the extraordinary home on the cliffs of Ravello on the Amalfi coast in Italy, where he and Auster had lived since 1963.

The memoir is less structured than Palimpsest, taking almost a diaristic form as he reflects both on the things that happen to him during 2005, the events in the world, and the people he knew whose deaths invoke a flurry of anecdotes. If the book had been more orderly, there is no doubt that Vidal would have left the strongest material to the end, instead of one-third in where it now appears. This is his report of the death of his partner Howard Auster in November 2003: the long struggle from illness to illness, the childlike reduction in his life, and most movingly, an extraordinary account of how Vidal looked into Auster's still-alert eyes after his heart stopped and held his gaze as he watched life ebb away from him. It is worth, as they say, the price of admission alone and if it doesn't move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a qualified professional.

So strong is the feeling of mortality throughout the book (assisted by the black cover) that it almost feels like a posthumous publication. Vidal is still vital however, and the effortless quality of his prose reminds us that although he is "moving, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked exit," he is still fully with us.

And I do not want to suggest that the book is overwhelmingly gloomy or morbid. There is plenty of Vidal's wit in evidence, and his contempt for the current (and most past) American administration, and his country's cultural mores.

Quote:

"A current pejorative term is narcissistic. Generally, a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are, but lately the adjective is often applied to those "liberals" who prefer to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them. Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the highest altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meaning of words is a very small price to pay for our vast freedom not only to conform but to consume."

Despite the occasional stretches where he mistakes his intimate knowledge of some lesser-known folk with our interest in them, the overall feeling of gratitude and what Martin Amis called "a transfusion from above" when reading Point to Point Navigation, means I can offer it only the highest praise. It is a perfect vale for Vidal.


Apple iWork 06 (Mac)
Apple iWork 06 (Mac)

34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I work harder now..., 13 Nov. 2006
This review is from: Apple iWork 06 (Mac) (DVD-ROM)
I made the switch a week ago from PC to Mac and am loving my shiny new Apple Macbook Pro. I also bought iWork 06 along with it as I thought I may as well go for the whole Apple experience instead of messing about with Word for Mac.

And so far my experiences of iWork have been mixed. It contains two applications, Keynote (for presentations, like Microsoft Powerpoint) and Pages (word processor, like Microsoft Word). I've only used Pages so far. It opened basic Word documents from my previous computer without a problem, retaining format, font, etc. However it was unable to open a Word document that had a table in it.

Pages is a good-looking and fast word processor but after using it for just a day or two I have found a couple of niggling issues. These seem to arise from Apple's commendable desire to streamline the programs and keep them simple. One thing is that you can't (and I checked their online support pages) have buttons in the toolbar for Italic/Bold etc. The only way to italicise text without using the keyboard is to go to the menu and click Format > Font > Italics. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who used to do it in one click in Microsoft Word. Another annoyance is that you can't do a word count for part of a document, just the whole thing. So if I want to see how many words I've written today, I can't just select the recent text and do a word count. I would have to open a new document, paste it in and do a count there. Infuriating!

These are just two things I've discovered so far, and there may well be others. For all Apple's claims of making things more user-friendly (which is true of the computer itself), this is pretty poor. I'm seriously thinking of getting Microsoft Office for Mac Student Edition just to have Word back again. It may be bloated, but now I know it's the handy basic features that make it bloated!


Best and Edwards
Best and Edwards
by Gordon Burn
Edition: Hardcover

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dunc and Disorderly, 26 Oct. 2006
This review is from: Best and Edwards (Hardcover)
While eyeing the shelves groaning this season with semi-literate footballers' 'autobiographies' with as much longevity as, well, as a premiership footballer, spare a thought for Best and Edwards, a real work of literature - of art, even - about football, by a real writer.

Gordon Burn has tackled "the psychopathology of fame" before - most notably in his novel Alma Cogan - and here he comes at it from two angles, featuring the "trajectory of two careers unmoored in wildly different ways." Duncan Edwards, the rising star of Manchester United and England, died in the Munich air crash in 1958 aged 21. Within the next 10 years Man U would have a new star, George Best, considered by Pele to be "the greatest footballer in the world." Best died too, but only after decades of alcohol abuse and one of the most ignominious descents ever witnessed in broad daylight by the eyes of the world and the media.

And the media is the third character in this extraordinary book. Because what Burn is interested in is not just the contrasting stories of Edwards and Best, but the whole shift in fame that occurred then, when fame went and 'celebrity' arrived. "Celebrity," in Burn's eyes, "is an indicator of how far fame has come adrift from real achievement - of how personality has replaced output as the measure of fame." And this leads him into the sort of analysis that we don't expect in soccer biographies (but this is no mere soccer biography):

"This is a kind of fame that can be - almost always is - conveniently and irretrievably wiped. It is a thin, weightless thing and mostly exists as a series of electronically generated pulses and pixels. Often it is literally without foundation or substance and is typically memorialised as a brand of designer fragrance or on a T-shirt or on a website rather than in the heavy, industrial-age materials of stained glass and granite and bronze. It is an inevitable fallout of the galloping and still ongoing process which has seen the electronic society of the image - the daily bath we all take in the media - replace the real community of the crowd.

"Cyber-age celebrity relates to the kind of old-fashioned renown rooted in genuine public affection and recognised achievement the way the various system-built, semi-prefabricated, part-plastic urban structures we have come to think of as post-modern relate to the heavy Victorian banks, lawyers' chambers and sooty civic buildings that in the great northern cities so often still surround them, like elderly relatives at a rave night."

This is what Burn does best, as well as splicing in quotes from richly literary sources from Martin Amis to Patrick Hamilton and Philip Roth to Don DeLillo, on sport, pubs, fame and other related matters. But the story keeps spiralling back to the title duo, and the final account of Best's decline is horrible and heartstoppingly tragic.

This is a book that will - or should - still be read when the pulped puff-pieces by Cole, Rooney and co are next year's egg cartons. It is a modern masterpiece about the times we live in, now and then.


The God Delusion
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Hardcover

335 of 402 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Preaching to the converted, 28 Sept. 2006
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This review is from: The God Delusion (Hardcover)
If you're reading this, the chances are you're either a 'radical atheist' (the preferred term of Dawkins' late friend Douglas Adams, to whom the book is dedicated), hoping that The God Delusion will give you a good satisfying dose of anti-religion rhetoric; or you're a devout believer, hoping to be roundly appalled and outraged.

Either way, you could be disappointed. For the first half or more, The God Delusion is more rigorous and scientifically demanding than we have been led to expect (Jeremy Paxman in interviewing Dawkins called it 'entertaining': well, yes and no). Dawkins goes to great, and occasionally tiresomely great, lengths to detail why the existence of the universe, the development of life and the variety of creation can be comfortably explained by science and probability. And then he gets to grips with traditional justifications for the existence of God, disposing of them in his own neat way. Perhaps these sections seemed superfluous to me as someone who is satisfied that Dawkins is right and there is no God; and doubtless they will seem equally superfluous - in another sense - to those who believe in God and not in Dawkins.

(It's worth saying at this point that when Dawkins means 'God', he means a personal, supernatural creator of the religious scriptures, a God-being rather than the more progressive notion of God as something nebulous that exists in all of us. This is after all the commonly understood meaning of God, which children are taught and most Christian, Islamic and Jewish adults continue to believe in. For sophisticated modern believers, who do not take the scriptures literally, Dawkins doesn't really regard you as religious at all; and you take that as an insult or compliment as you see fit.)

All this is worthwhile but when the book was more than half over, by page 200, and we were still on "The Roots of Religion," I couldn't help wondering when it would all get going. I needn't have worried. Dawkins, who has been quite restrained up until now - his disrespect limited to the odd sneer of 'faith-heads' or referring to the God of the Old Testament as a 'psychotic delinquent' - lets fly with the passion of his true feelings once the subject turns to morality.

And it is a thrilling, invigorating display. Dawkins systematically dismantles all arguments for morality being connected to religious belief in any sense (indeed shows how diametrically opposed much religious teaching is to widely accepted morality), addresses tricky issues like the Darwinian explanation for altruism, disposes of a few sacred cows along the way (Mother Teresa is "sanctimoniously hypocritical [with] cock-eyed judgement," God an "evil monster"), and horrifies us with religion's historical and present-day cruelties and injustices.

The other principal benefit of The God Delusion is that it gives us an opportunity to see all Dawkins' religious arguments in one place, having previously experienced them only in snippets of other books, newspaper articles and TV programmes. And he wastes no time in reiterating some of his favourite rhetoric:

"I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase 'Christian child' or 'Muslim child' should grate like fingernails on a blackboard."

"I have found it amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and almost all the other gods that have been invented since the dawn of man. I just go one god further."

And having put the fear of, well, God into us by detailing the dark side of religious belief (Dawkins would argue that there is no bright side: if your good morals and deeds are determined solely by a God you believe in, he argues, you are an "immoral person we should steer a clear passage around"), he is too professional to leave us floundering. Instead he injects the last ten pages with a soaring essay on the passion of science, which "widens the window" on what we can see, and leaves us with a lasting taste of the freedom that can be ours if we can only dare to think for ourselves. It is reminiscent of this beautiful passage from his earlier book Unweaving the Rainbow, which seems a good place to end, letting the wonder of what's really there speak for itself:

"Fling your arms wide in an expansive gesture to span all of evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria.

"Many-celled, invertebrate life flowers somewhere around your right elbow. The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm, and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole history of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail clipping. As for recorded history; as for the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Jewish patriarchs, the dynasties of Pharaohs, the legions of Rome, the Christian Fathers, the Laws of the Medes and Persians which never change; as for Troy and the Greeks, Helen and Achilles and Agamemnon dead; as for Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Bill Clinton, they and everyone that knew them are blown away in the dust of one light stroke of a nail file."
Comment Comments (28) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2015 3:04 AM GMT


The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

105 of 129 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Trouble and Strife, 23 Aug. 2006
The good news about Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling phenomenon is that it is based on a thoroughly good, original idea, and furthermore that it reads extremely speedily despite its 500-odd page length.

The bad news is that there isn't any more good news. So let's tease out what we can. Henry and Clare are time-cross'd lovers: he suffers from Chrono-Displacement, a fanciful condition that regularly, but unpredictably, whips him clean out of the here and now and deposits him elsewhere - elsewhen - in time. So far, so Philip K Dick. It is certainly a novel conceit for a literary/mainstream love story. However because it's a love story and not science fiction, Niffenegger doesn't really work out her logic very much. She makes the rules, and they're all designed to her convenience - such as the fact that Henry always ends up somewhere known to him when he time-travels, and never on the other side of the world. Similarly, before the 'now' of the book, he only ever visits the past; and in the 'future' of the book, he only ever visits the future. This makes the story very linear for such a potentially bouncy chronology, presumably to make it easy for us and permit us to keep our minds on the love story.

The love story itself is nothing special, other than in its self-fufilling circularity. Henry and Clare are destined to be together - they meet in a library where Henry works when he is 28 and she is 20. But they only get together at Clare's instigation, because Henry has been appearing to her - from his future time - regularly since she was six years old, telling her how they are destined to be together. When they meet at the library, Henry doesn't know Clare because he hasn't met her yet - and it's only because he loves her in the future, and then travels back in time to see her as a child, that she invites him for dinner, and he accepts. And so the relationship is built on itself, unsupported by anything else: they are only together because they are together.

The two characters - who take turns to narrate the novel - do not have very distinct voices, and frequently I would find myself in the middle of a passage of Clare's thinking it was Henry, until she says something like "Henry looked at me." But if Clare is just banal, Henry transcends this as the novel progresses to become positively unlikeable. I did have my doubts in the sections referred to earlier, where he appears in his thirties and forties - naked because his clothes disappear when he time travels [And that, Your Honour, concludes the case for the defence] - in front of Clare when she is as young as six years old. Not just because it's a tad distasteful - though he heroically restrains himself from deflowering her until the birthday when she comes of legal age - but also because it shows that the whole edifice of their relationship is built on Henry's will. If a mystery friend comes and visits a child routinely from the age of six, it's a pretty safe bet that her desires will become shaped by what he tells her.

Henry goes from bad to worse when he kicks a man to a bloody pulp for insulting him, and from worse to worser when Niffenegger (what was she thinking?) decides to make him a preening erotomaniac, so thoroughly satisfied of his own sexual prowess that I really cannot bring myself to reproduce the relevant passages for fear of vomiting on my keyboard. And naturally, when he dies, he leaves Clare a note telling her that he will return to her in the future (from his past when he was still alive) just once or twice, thus making her spend the rest of her life - some 50 years according to the times given - waiting for him to the exclusion of finding happiness with someone else. Oh and did I mention his random abandonment and subsequent harsh treatment of the girlfriend he was seeing when Clare 're'-entered his life, led to her committing suicide?

All of which would be fine if Henry was supposed to be a repellent creep through and through, but I think Niffenegger wants us to like him, and to celebrate his brainwashing possession of Clare as some great epic love story. Epic it certainly is, and for most of the book little happens - one fifty-page section describes Henry's first Christmas with Clare's family, where nothing of interest happens, and even for the rest of the book, when Henry and Clare are not celebrating their fantastic lurve, it's slapstick-lite with us wondering whether Henry will get to the church for their marriage on time, or how he will explain himself to colleagues when he keeps re-appearing naked at work. So when it all descends into melodrama near the end, with amputations, suicide, shooting and so on, I couldn't help but smile and wish good riddance - to Horrible Henry, and his silly story too.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 17, 2012 12:12 AM BST


Kalooki Nights
Kalooki Nights
by Howard Jacobson
Edition: Hardcover

45 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I'm Sorry Now, 21 Aug. 2006
This review is from: Kalooki Nights (Hardcover)
I'm a long-time fan of Howard Jacobson's and have enjoyed his last four novels: No More Mister Nice Guy, The Mighty Walzer, Who's Sorry Now? and The Making of Henry. So when Kalooki Nights was published and seemed to achieve a sort of critical consensus in the papers (see the reviews extracted above, as well as A.C. Grayling's extraordinary eulogy in The Times: "it is, to state plainly, a work of genius"), I couldn't wait to read it. Then it was longlisted for the Booker Prize last week, and quickly was tipped for the shortlist.

So it gives me no pleasure at all to say that I have given up on Kalooki Nights at about the one-third mark (page 150). Even by Jacobson's discursive, rambling standards it really is toweringly random and in the end the critic I most agreed with is Michael Moorcock who said "Jacobson is a great anecdotalist but a lousy storyteller." Now anyone who reads Jacobson knows that the plot is not the point: but even so. There is less a story than an exploration around a story: specifically, the narrator Maxie Glickman trying to discover why his childhood friend Manny Washinsky gassed both his own parents in their bed. The cultural background, if you hadn't guessed by the names, is Jewish, or Jewish squared: as Jacobson himself said, "it's the most Jewish novel ever written by anyone anywhere." This will be familiar to anyone who's read any of Jacobson's other novels (particularly the semi-autobiographical coming of age story The Mighty Walzer), and here we have the added colour of the big Jewish storyline of the 20th century - the Holocaust.

Sadly for me Jacobson's black humour and tangential style didn't work here the way it has in his other books, and I'm afraid I found Kalooki Nights tiresome almost from the outset: which can't be a good sign. Jacobson is still excellent on families, and still even better on capturing on the page the erotic allure of an older woman, but the book never really took off for me. His previous novel, The Making of Henry, had a terrific 30-page opening scene which gave the reader enough momentum to push through the occasional longueurs afterwards, but Kalooki Nights begins as it goes on: in bits, back and forward, here and there, never picking up speed. Can a book be simultaneously very well written and extremely dull? Well, the evidence of Joyce, Proust, Beckett and Bellow is that yes it can, and indeed can go on to be considered a classic too. So good luck to Jacobson with that: perhaps it's more Nobel (ie difficult and unrewarding) than Booker.

If Kalooki Nights gets onto the Booker shortlist then (a) it can only be as a lifetime-achievement type prize, a little like Ian McEwan's win for the middling Amsterdam, and (b) a lot of people who buy it as their first Jacobson will be put off him for good. Better to begin with No More Mister Nice Guy (a brilliantly funny sex comedy) or Who's Sorry Now? (which was longlisted for the Booker in 2002, should have got further, and didn't).
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2010 8:26 PM BST


Seven Lies
Seven Lies
by James Lasdun
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Scorned Man, 15 Aug. 2006
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Seven Lies (Paperback)
James Lasdun's new novel is less eccentric than his first, The Horned Man, but all the more seductive for it. Stefan Vogel, immigrant from the former East Germany to the USA, begins his diary with an account of how a woman threw a glass of wine over him at a party. (Yes, that's not blood on the front cover...) The event is recounted, or recalled, several times by him over the following pages, sometimes briefly

"Are you Stefan Vogel? Yes. Splash!"

and sometimes with all his poet's tools to the fore

"And out of the points of light gleaming about her, the goblet of red wine, which I have not previously noticed, detaches itself, coming perplexingly towards me, in a perplexingly violent manner, its ruby hemisphere exploding from the glass into elongated fingers like those of some ghastly accusatory hand hurtling through the air at my body until with a great crimson splatter I am suddenly standing there soaking and reeking, blazoned in the livery of shame."

Eventually the book settles down to recount the seemingly unrelated tale of how Stefan came to go West. This makes up most of the book, and it turns out that this is inextricably linked to why he had his clothes ruined with wine, though it's not until near the end that we find out the connection. In the meantime the book has some of the very finest writing I have read in ages, which made me mentally note the book down early on as a possible Best New Book of the Year. For example the following, which comes at the end of a series of petty lies-upon-lies that young Stefan tells which causes upset among his family ("Every lie," the epigraph by Martin Luther reminds us, "must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth"), and finds Stefan in an impossibly confused mixture of feelings brought on by his lies:

"A few years later, when I was making a private study of the career of Joseph Stalin, I came across descriptions of his seventieth birthday: the enormous portrait of him suspended over Moscow from a balloon, lit up at night by searchlights; the special meeting of the Soviet Academy of Sciences honouring 'the greatest genius of the human race' ... The festivities culminated in a gala at the Bolshoi Theatre where the leaders of all the world's communist parties stood up one by one to make elaborately flattering speeches to Stalin, and to lavish him with gifts. One can imagine his state of mind as he sat on the stage receiving these tributes - the absolute disbelief in the sincerity of a single word being uttered; the compulsive need to hear them none the less; the antennae bristlingly attuned to the slightest lapse in the effort to portray conviction...

It seems to me that at the age of thirteen, I had already developed the cynicism of a seventy-year-old dictator."

This to me felt quite brilliant - the real thing - and it was only because the book seemed to tail off a little toward the middle (as did The Horned Man) that I ended up marking it down mentally as a four-star job rather than a full flowering five. Having said that, the end of the book recasts it all in such a light, that I think there must be some truth in this comment from the review in the Independent:

"This is a novel to be read twice. Some pleasures, such as the compelling prose, will be savoured with as much relish on a second reading, while the tension will be replaced by an appreciation of James Lasdun's cunning."

So: five it is after all. I do feel a need to re-read, almost immediately, in fact; and the last book I did that with was Patrick McGrath's Dr Haggard's Disease, which must be a good sign. [Warning: extremely bad closing pun even by my standards approaching] I'll be sure to let you know if the next read turns out to be even better than the Lasdun.


The Squid And The Whale [DVD] [2006]
The Squid And The Whale [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Jeff Daniels
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65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blows No Good, 29 July 2006
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The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach's autobiographical film about his parents' divorce. Beyond that I know nothing of the source material or of Baumbach's life - not even which of the two boys in the film represents him - but you don't need to, of course. And the truth of everything in the film beams through it so clearly that you would be in no doubt, anyway, that it came from real life.

Jeff Daniels gives a quietly barnstorming performance as Bernard (pronounced Ber-NARD) Berkman, a lazily bearded New York writer whose literary career is on the skids. His wife Joan (Laura Linney), meanwhile, has been published in the New Yorker and is about to get some good news about her first novel... Berkman is presented to us in toto in the opening scene, playing tennis with the family, the hilariously bitter competitive dad figure as he takes his son to one side and whispers "Try to get your mother's backhand. It's her weak point."

When the divorce is announced, along with joint custody ("Joint custody blows" - for some reason this has been changed on the UK DVD cover to 'joint custody sucks'), elder son Walt takes dad's side, accusing his mother of breaking up the family. He dates Sophie, a charming but unworldly girl who is taken in by his faux-intellectualism (another inheritance from his father), describing her favourite book as 'minor Fitzgerald,' bluffing a discussion and calling Metamorphosis 'Kafkaesque,' and faking authorship of Pink Floyd songs. Younger son Frank, aged - what? - ten or eleven, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen in public places, and to alcohol.

If all this makes it seem utterly grim, that could not be further from the truth. The film is not (or not only) uplifting in a Richard Yates way, for its honesty in portraying misery. It is bitterly brilliant, painfully funny, and with an almost non-stop series of great lines and scenes, mostly involving the self-involved Berkman Sr. One reviewer on imdb.com, who knew Jonathan Baumbach, the basis for Bernard Berkman, says that Daniels "amazingly, underplays the actual father."

Bernard: Joan, let me ask you something. All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what...

Joan: You never made a dinner.

Bernard: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.

And the film is beautifully paced, too, with so many scenes cut short where other films would have played through until they became tiring or over-obvious. As a result, there is not a single boring moment in the entire film, which in fact comes in at well under 90 minutes.

It's quietly moving too, particularly in the central scene where son Walt explains to the psychotherapist that the only happy memory he can recall was when he was six years old, and doesn't involve his father. It also explains the title of the film, which comes back in the neat coda.

A vital film, and essential viewing.
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