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

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Seeking Whom he may Devour
Seeking Whom he may Devour
by Fred Vargas
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A shaggy dog story, 14 Mar. 2006
I offer my opinion not to dissuade fans of this book, or even of crime fiction generally, but give the view of a non-genre fan so others who are drawn to this by the literary pedigree of the publisher can be warned it might not be their cup of thé either. Harvill/Vintage are reliable purveyors of quality crime fiction in translation (Henning Mankell etc.), and Seeking Whom He May Devour had a positive review in my paper at the weekend:
"A French psychiatrist has claimed that the work of compatriot Fred Vargas is better than Prozac, and on the evidence of this wonderful, unclassifiable and eccentric thriller, I would have to agree. Seeking Whom He May Devour subverts all the clichés and manages to be touching, witty and quirky without feeling forced. ... The sense of place is so strong that you can almost smell the lanolin, sweat and local wine, and Bellos's sensitive translation brings out the full flavour of the text. If you haven't come across Vargas before, you are in for a real treat."
Well: nuts to that. The book is utterly predictable, and - I say this not to thumb my nose but to warn - I had worked out whodunit by page 29. Naturally this made me feel momentarily smug and clever, but that soon faded to be replaced by a more enduring, and indeed bitter, sense of disappointment and frustration. Clichés rattled through it like birdshot: the bulk of the book taken up by a wild goose chase, where a theory reported by one character becomes the notional central 'truth' of the story, treating the reader like a fool by expecting them to buy into it; there's the intuitive detective who saves the day, who doesn't appear in the forefront of the storyline until three-fifths of the way through; and it's all capped with a several-pages-long explanation of how it all fits together, in the squirm-inducing style of pretty much any identikit, tinkertoy cop show. On top of all this, the translation, despite being from Georges Perec's translator and biographer David Bellos, is doubtful, particularly in the dialogue, which swings between stilted formality and excess slanginess. That, of course, could be a simple result of the impossibility of translating one language's idioms into another.
Interestingly, her (yes, Fred is a she-Fred) novels are being issued in the UK in reverse order: Have Mercy on Us All, published in the first, was originally issued in France in 2001; Seeking Whom He May Devour was from 1999; and the newly published The Three Evangelists, out last month in Harvill Secker trade paperback, dates originally from 1995. I can only hope she get better, or worse, if you see what I mean.


Ask The Dust
Ask The Dust
by John Fante
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Informed, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Ask The Dust (Paperback)
I read Ask the Dust for the first time this week, but when I think on it, Fante first came to my attention when I saw the first paragraph of this novel used as the epigraph to Bret Easton Ellis's 1994 collection of stories, The Informers.
"One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed."
Probably Ellis intended to use this to infuse his collection with the essence of Fante, as his characters were modern versions of Fante's: feckless, drifting, irresponsible. There the similarities end though, for Ellis's characters derive their plotlessness from an excess of money and unregarded privilege, whereas Fante's have the opposite. Also, Ellis's characters are suffering - to cite the blurb - from the death of the soul, whereas Fante's are bursting with heart and soul from the first page.
Ask the Dust was published in 1939 but it feels entirely fresh. Like his disciple Bukowski (by an embarrassing coincidence, I read what I thought was the opening of Ask the Dust in the bookshop and liked it enough to buy it, only to get home and realise what I had liked so much was the start of the introduction, penned by Charles Bukowski), Fante uses mostly ordinary, unordained language to extraordinarily vivid effect. This makes the occasional fine phrase - 'the waves eating the shore' - all the more arresting. We live right alongside Fante's alter ego Arturo Bandini as he struggles with his writing, his love Camilla, and his own zigzagging sense of self-worth. For comparisons to Bukowski (or vice versa, as Fante was writing thirty years earlier), Bandini is not actually as low and hopeless as Bukowski's Henry Chinaski. He has a fair measure of success with his writing, and his mostly one-way love affair with his 'publisher' J.C. Hackmuth is frequently hilarious.
Nonetheless the essence of the Depression and life lived on a day-to-day basis pervades the book and infuses it with a powerful sense of sadness. As I understand it, Ask the Dust is part of a quartet of novels featuring Arturo Bandini and I'll surely be picking those up soon, along with his other novels in print in the UK, Brotherhood of the Grape and 1933 Was a Bad Year.


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

57 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Gripping Point, 14 Mar. 2006
Blink is subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which may be a tacit acknowledgement by Malcolm Gladwell that the title is not as self-explanatory, and as unlikely to enter the common language, as his previous pop-culture book The Tipping Point. Not that he doesn't have a damned good try: in the very last sentence, he's still at it, telling us that "the screen created a pure Blink moment" - to which we reply, stop trying so hard, Malc. And get a haircut.
And he really should get a haircut now, as it's served his purpose. He tells us in the Acknowledgements that the book was inspired by his discovery that, after writing The Tipping Point, he decided on a whim to grow his hair out from its previous conservative crop, and found when he did so that he suddenly started getting more speeding tickets, pulled out of airport security lines, and even questioned by the police as a potential rapist. All this caused him to wonder what it is about first impressions that are so powerful for us: how we come to these snap conclusions and how we can work them to our advantage. In other words to discover the source and uses of, as he would no doubt love to have us all call them, Blink moments.
Fortunately, this insistent phrasemaking is one of the few weak links (or "Wlinks" as we call them)in the book. Throughout its length, Blink s a gripping, lovingly told explanation of all sorts of phenomena that we hadn't thought about, or not much, connected with how our unconscious reads the world, rightly and wrongly. This last - the wrong conclusions we reach without realising - does somewhat diminish Gladwell's stated aim: "to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately." But so what? It gives him an opportunity to delve into some of the most interesting material in the book, like the last proper chapter which tells, with a novelist's skill, of an unarmed young man being shot 41 times by the NYPD and how the officers who killed him were absolutely convinced - convinced - that the black wallet he was pulling out of his pocked was actually a gun. When Gladwell moves on from the conclusion of the shooting, a silence rings over the page, and then the explanatory narrative begins, like the voiceover in some extraordinarily cinematic documentary. The effect is staggeringly powerful.
And it's presumably effects like these, which appeal to the heart as much as the mind, which have detractors dismissing the book as shallow sixth-form stuff, or not real science, or a two-page essay struggling to get out. But it's not supposed to be real science: it's filed under Culture, after all, and is more concerned with psychology than biology. And Gladwell's anecdotes are so fascinating, and well told, that to ask him to be more rigorous and detailed - and less interesting and accessible - would be a category error of the magnitude of asking Tom Clancy to write a work of literature about the eternal mysteries of the human heart.
And so we get the man who can predict, with 95% accuracy, whether a couple will stay married from a 15-minute conversation; the problems of taking new ideas to a mass market, illustrated by the music of Kenna, which was adored by every music industry bod who heard it, so they were fighting to sign him, but then fell flat with the focus groups (I've bought his album since reading Blink, and it's actually much more accessible than the book leads us to believe); the appeal to all of us of the handsome, tall and imposing, which led to the selection and election of Warren Harding, regular poll-topper of Worst US President; and the man who went to war with the USA in a war games simulation, and beat the massed armies of Uncle Sam down flat - which leads Gladwell to an irresistibly ironic conclusion about the lessons they have failed to learn from this in Iraq. There's also a nice investigation of autism, where Gladwell suggests that under stressful situations we all become 'temporary autists,' unable to read others' faces and body language, which leads directly to tragedies like four armed police officers literally unable to tell a wallet from a gun.
For anyone with an interest in how the mind works, Blink is fascinating from start to finish, and even has some unsettling material for the audience to work with. It offers some IATs (Implicit Association Tests) to show racist you really are. And then read Blink, which will suggest how to reorder your subconscious appropriately. And for God's sake stay away from guns until you do.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 14, 2008 12:45 PM GMT


Pastoralia
Pastoralia
by George Saunders
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What the other guy said, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Pastoralia (Paperback)
Pastoralia is George Saunders's second collection of stories and, like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, it deals with a parallel or future world, a service sector gone mad and has much black-hearted satire for our own days. I read it in one day (albeit a day confined to planes and trains) and it was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Early Vonnegut is brought to mind with Saunders's packing-'em-in brevity (see the first page of "Sea Oak" or "Winky"). My favourite though was "The Barber's Unhappiness," which seems representative with its hopeless, loveless protagonist and its cool distance and occasional absurdity. Here he is having snatched a glimpse down the dress of a woman he's trying to work out whether he should be dropping his standards to pursue:
"Well she definitely had something going on in the chest category. So facially she was the prettiest in the room, plus she had decent boobs. Attractive breasts. The thing was, would she want him? He was old. Oldish. When he stood up too fast his knee joints popped. Lately his gums had started to bleed. Plus he had no toes. Although why sell himself short? He owned his own small business. He had a bit of a gut, yes, and his hair was somewhat thin, but then again his shoulders and chest were broad, so that the overall effect, even with the gut, was of power, which girls liked, and at least his head was properly sized for his body, which was more than she could say, although then again he still lived with his mother."
Ultimately though the fun Saunders has with his characters never descends into Waughish cruelty, and - by and large - gives them hope at the end of the trek through their story, if not success. Pastoralia is an essential collection of modern short stories.


Young Hearts Crying (Methuen modern fiction)
Young Hearts Crying (Methuen modern fiction)
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yates the Great, 14 Mar. 2006
This is another reissued stunner from Richard Yates, whose Revolutionary Road has become one of the great word-of-mouth successes of the past few years (only fifty years after first publication, and ten after his death).
I liked Young Hearts Crying more than his other post-RR novels in print The Easter Parade or Cold Spring Harbor, mainly for its length - more than 400 pages of Yates to wallow in, what larks! Having said that, I can see how the third section of the book - which follows Michael Davenport - could be seen as a weaker link. Davenport is too obviously Yates and often he struggles to make him anything other than an autobiographical cipher: the alcoholism, the breakdowns and psychiatric admissions are all present. Nonetheless, every time I started to think along these lines, he would pull another great moment or entire scene out of the hat and all would be forgiven. The wide range of the book - covering parenthood, love, sex, art, and so on - made it special for me, even if that necessarily diluted the intensity of Easter Parade or Cold Spring Harbor. It even seems less bleak overall than some of his work - though that may just be me getting used to it...
Buy this book, along with all his other work - half a dozen novels and two collections of stories: not much for a life, you might think, but when they're this good, who's complaining?


The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Richard Yates, not Richard and Judy, 14 Mar. 2006
This essential collection of stories by one of the great unsung American writers of the 20th century is sublime, and will give you so much pleasure over the course of your life that it could well end up being the best value book you've ever bought. It consists of Yates's two collections of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love, together with some uncollected stories. You can read about Eleven Kinds of Loneliness elsewhere, as it's now available on its own, so I'll just give you a taste of the second half of this collection.
The stories in Liars in Love are longer than in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and, in an entirely unexpected turn for those accustomed to Yates's chronic despair, occasionally more optimistic. At least two of the stories - Regards at Home and Yates's longest story, the 44-pager Saying Goodbye to Sally - have tempered hope in their closing lines, as well as some actual jokes. And as always, the details and the dialogues are just so, every single mot precisely juste. The uncollected stories were a surprise, too - no leaden danglers here, scraped up off the bottom of the study drawer: the stories are shorter than most of the previously published ones, but no less achieved. We get to see elements of Yates's life that he hadn't previously cannibalized in novels and stories: such as wartime experiences (rendered with astonishing vigour and clarity in flashback in The Canal) and TB wards. There's a tiny four-pager, witty and brittle, in Bells in the Morning, and a rare first person narrative (Yates's only one, apart from Regards at Home?) in A Last Fling, Like. Finally, in The Comptroller and the Wild Wind, another tale of broken marriage and so much more, we find where Yates took the title for his novel Young Hearts Crying: a poem by James Joyce entitled Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba:
"I heard their young hearts crying
Loveward above the glancing oar
And heard the prairie grasses sighing:
No more, return no more!
O hearts, O sighing grasses,
Vainly your loveblown bannerets mourn!
No more will the wild wind that passes
Return, no more return."
So there's the last word, for now, on Richard Yates: he can quote Joyce in the middle of his own work and still not seem rubbish by comparison.


Some Hope
Some Hope
by Edward St Aubyn
Edition: Paperback

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good News, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Some Hope (Paperback)
Tastes differ, and for me it's no concern that the characters are mostly awful when the writing - and that's what it's all about, after all - is as good as this:
"She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth."
Volume one of the trilogy - Never Mind - tells the story simply of a gathering at the house, in France, of an upper-class English couple, David and Eleanor Melrose. Eleanor, an alcoholic, is wealthy by birth and David married her for her money, though that's the least of his vices. He's an out-and-out villain, whether making his wife eat her dinner from the floor like a dog, or exerting power over his five-year-old son Patrick in the most disturbing ways. Their guests are not much better, and when the book ended I was both glad to see the back of such a bunch of upsetting misfits, and sorry to finish such a beautifully-written performance in prose. Even in the depths of depravity St. Aubyn is a pleasure to read, his writing full of life and the sort of subdued wit you know you will laugh at much more the second time around.
A word, by the way, about the title of the three volumes. I just love them. Never Mind. Bad News. Some Hope. Their stark, bare, blankness mixed with tiny ambiguities - like the names of exhibits at a modish art exhibition - makes me chuckle just to look at them. Never Mind sums up the coolly distant narrative voice, glossing over the horrors which David Melrose inflicts on his 'loved' ones. Bad News speaks literally of the central piece of information in the second book - that David Melrose has died - but ironically, because for his son Patrick, now 22 years old, it is very good news indeed. It is also reflective of Patrick himself, walking bad news if ever there was, a hopelessly out-of-control drug addict who spends the two days that the book covers, in New York to make arrangements after his father's death, in a stew of hallucinations and desperate fix-addiction. But as a portrait of addiction it's as laugh-out-loud funny as it is gripping.
Some Hope, finally - the third volume, as well as the title Picador have given to the overall series for this reissue - is a deliciously simple but subtle double-entendre, a rolled-eyes dismissal of the possibility of anything good coming from the contents of Never Mind and Bad News - but also a good-hearted acknowledgement of the existence of that possibility, however small. Not 'very much hope', then, but 'some hope' nonetheless. Just wonderful. It's a shame then that in the new Picador omnibus edition, these superb, perfect titles are reduced mostly to the status of chapter headings.
Anyway. Whereas Bad News gives us mostly the world from the eyes of Patrick Melrose, Some Hope returns to the multiple voices of Never Mind. This seems like a retreat, and Some Hope is at its strongest when in Patrick's mind (now thirty, and in recovery from his drug use), and at other times seems winsome and cutely aphoristic, which over time - though it's only 150 pages - can get irritating, just the way page after page of Oscar Wilde's paradoxes can. One quip goes a mightly long way. Nonetheless, the portrait of Princess Margaret is a triumph, and the whole trilogy has a cumulative power that takes it to the highest echelons of modern English writing. And the Best News is that the stand-alone sequel, Mother's Milk, is even better.


Marry Me (Read Red)
Marry Me (Read Red)
by John Updike
Edition: Paperback

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An embarrassment of drolleries, 10 Feb. 2006
This review is from: Marry Me (Read Red) (Paperback)
Almost as soon as I began Marry Me, I was impressed and delighted with the sheer quality of Updike's writing - the opening chapter, a mere twelve pages, has so much truth and brilliance in it that it's no surprise that it was previously published as a booklet on its own in 1973. For all the truth and beauty of the writing, the subject matter - as with the Rabbit books and Couples (and probably others of his I haven't read), is the unhappiness of married life, and the itches that get scratched by those weak (or perhaps, in Updike's view, strong) enough to stray.
In the end I raced through Marry Me in two days - amazingly swiftly for an Updike - and loved all of it. It's really a series of long scenes between the two pairs of adulterers and adulterees, sometimes so long that you feel Updike is just turning the screws on these people (and on us) a little more than necessary. But it's devilishly entertaining to watch them perform at his whipstroke: arguing, making up, behaving predictably and unpredictably, deceiving and owning up, and never ever actually knuckling down to it and deciding what to do with their lives. The honesty and detail with which Updike presents them to us is breathlessly invigorating, the literary equivalent of sticking your head out the car window and feeling life rush by violently.
The characters are not admirable - the women alternately whiny, winning, sympathetic and pitiable; the men cruel, sincere, indecisive and confused - but they are plausible and fascinating. The combination of effortlessly elegant prose and wrenching emotional confrontations makes this the perfect marriage of heart and head.


Mother's Milk
Mother's Milk
by Edward St Aubyn
Edition: Hardcover

42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good News, 27 Jan. 2006
This review is from: Mother's Milk (Hardcover)
Edward St Aubyn's writing has reached a new maturity in Mother's Milk which is glorious to witness, not least in the opening scene which is a remarkable and original account of being born - torn from the womb into the 'loud desert' of life - by a highly precocious baby.
"The strange thing was that he felt as if he had been there before. He had known there was an outside all along. He used to think it was a muffled watery world out there and that he lived at the heart of things. Now the walls had tumbled down and he could see what a muddle he had been in. How could he avoid getting in a new muddle in this hammeringly bright place? How could he kick and spin like he used to in this heavy atmosphere where the air stung his skin?
"Yesterday he had thought he was dying. Perhaps he was right and this was what happened. Everything was open to question, except the fact that he was separated from his mother. Now he realised there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.
"He was an inconsolable wreck. He couldn't live with so much doubt and so much intensity. He vomited colostrum over his mother and then in the hazy moment of emptiness that followed, he caught sight of the curtains bulging with light. They held his attention. That's how it worked here. They fascinated you with things to make you forget about the separation."
And all in all, right from the start, Mother's Milk turns out to be an extraordinary thing, a virtuoso balancing act of disgust and compassion, all to the background tinkling of some of the most beautiful, perfectly weighted writing (and jokes) I've read in ages. It's all about the dreads and joys of families - rather like the Some Hope trilogy, to which it is a stand-alone sequel - with a soupcon of the New Age satire with which St Aubyn occupied himself in his non-Melrose novels, On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit. It starts with the tenderly comic birth scene mentioned above, and ends at the other end of life, with tragedy and muted reconciliation.
"She suddenly felt that both ends of life were absolutely terrifying, with a quite frightening stretch in between."
There are literally so many choice chunks I would like to extract - from Patrick's horrorstruck rediscovery of America, through his petulant and sarcastic arguments with the Irish 'shaman' in whose favour Patrick has been disinherited, to second child Thomas's brilliantly observed toddler-talk - that to do so would turn this into one of those Martin Amis pieces on Saul Bellow, where all he does is drop quote after quote. So I won't. Read it yourself instead and get in on the ground floor of what should, by all rights, be one of the novels of the year.


Peter Kay: Live at Manchester Arena [DVD] [2004]
Peter Kay: Live at Manchester Arena [DVD] [2004]
Dvd ~ Peter Kay
Offered by A ENTERTAINMENT
Price: £2.95

67 of 72 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sly Money-Making Exercise, 28 Nov. 2005
It's hugely cynical for Peter Kay to release this DVD in time for the Christmas market, as it will lead to many disappointed fans when they put it on. Perhaps they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes so he didn't know what he was doing. Yes, it does say on the front that it's a 'farewell performance' of the 'Mum Wants a Bungalow' Tour, which was the live show previously released from Bolton Albert Halls - but many people will not spot this or not know the tour name to realise that they already have the show on DVD. At least with the reviews below, people buying it on t'internet will be forewarned.


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