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Levels of Life
Levels of Life
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Barnesophiles will not expect this, 20 May 2013
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
Julian Barnes is a writer known for his inscrutability. His immaculately crafted novels and essays reveal much about his insights into the human condition, but little about the man himself. One thing we do know, however, is how much he loved his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. His short 'Parenthesis' in his novel 'A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters' was one of the rare times when Barnes let the mask slip and wrote about his personal love for his wife. Martin Amis, and other writers, have commented on Barnes's 'uxorious' nature - a word often mentioned in this book.

So perhaps we should not be so surprised to read Barnes's raw and emotionally lacerating account of the grief he has encountered since his wife's death in the autumn of 2008. The first two chapters of this slim volume (like much of Barnes's work it transcends the boundaries between genres) presage the theme of the final, tumultuous chapter, and develop the conceit of the book - that life operates on varying levels, like the amateur balloonists of the 19th Century, the higher you climb, the futher... well you know the cliche. Why do we aspire to love when all love stories, in the end, result in the severing of one partner from the other?

But the final section is a tidal wave of direct, emotional honesty. Barnes tackles the crushing force of his grief head on. He describes, movingly, his feelings as he drove home from the hospital during the 37 days between his wife's diagnosis and death - 'just the universe doing its stuff', something Barnes both can, and cannot accept. He outlines his serious, and well thought out plans for suicide - a glass of wine by the bath, an extremely sharp Japanese knife. It is astonishing to think of one of our most renowned and self controlled novelists reduced to such a state. He admits to the draining of his emotions - he confesses he has now submitted to Murdoch and purchased a 'panalopy' of sports channels so he can immerse himself in football matches in which he has no emotional attachment, simply because he has nothing left to give.

Barnes is obviously not the first writer to tackle the subject of grief, but his contribution to the literature is perhaps the most surprising as he is one of the writers you would least expect to reveal the inner details of his own life. Remember Flaubert's Parrot - why does writing make us chase the writer? Why can't we leave alone? Well there is no need to chase here - Barnes reveals the innermost workings of his life in abundance.


The Lighthouse (SALT MODERN FICTION)
The Lighthouse (SALT MODERN FICTION)
Price: £3.59

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curious little novel about peripheral people, 16 April 2013
The Lighthouse is a curious, original short novel. It begins as a neat seeming little story about a man reflecting on the events of his life whilst on a walking holiday in Germany, but ends with something much sinister. The twin narratives of Futh's circular walking trip from and back to the aptly named 'Hellhaus', and the claustrophobic sexual relations involving the guest house owners - Bernard and Esther, have several compelling parallels, and a denouement that is as thrilling as it is ambiguous.

The style and tone of the book are laced with well written imagery that depict the awkward sensations of life brilliantly -the dry mastication of eating a boiled egg, a lonely plate of smoked meats for one, the dry peeling scorch of sunburn. The reader is taken on a walk around the less appealing human sensation and smells, and a tour into the dark heart of obscure, peripheral, lonely people who find little comfort from life's journey.


One Day
One Day
by David Nicholls
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Feelgood panorama of recent decades, 21 Dec 2010
This review is from: One Day (Hardcover)
This novel will appeal to readers who like novels with characters they can 'identify with'. One Day, tracing the lives of Dexter and Emma will identify with many British readers. Both main characters lead lives embroiled in social and political environments that will be familiar with anyone who has grown up in the Britain of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Their stories have the universal quality that writers strive for, and I think this is why the book is so popular.

Yes the writing is pretty lowbrow, and the much vaunted wit of David Nicholls is not particularly apparent. One particularly poorly drawn minor character Ian, a boyfriend of Emma during one of her hapless phases, relies too much on forced stand up comedy lines. But the quirky love story is genuine and affecting, and (albeit partly through a plot climax featuring a rather forced deus ex machina) many readers will find themselves welling up somewhat over the final pages.

Not a heavy read, but good on the details of 80s, 90s and naughties Britain - the rise of 'media', the struggles of people with a genuinely left wing conscience, the difficulties of making a fulfilling living in a genuinely worthwhile career, the obsession with youth, beauty and 'self', the extortionate property prices.

The middle brow writers that dominate the media - Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby, you know the types, have been drooling all over this book and it is easy to see why: they wish they had written it. The movie will surely follow.


The American Future: A History
The American Future: A History
by Simon Schama CBE
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ideas slung around a film-shoot, 7 April 2010
Like the rest of the brilliant academics who have made a name through dazzling scholarship and cashed it in for big money TV series, Schama loses some of his intellectual synoptic brilliance by writing not, as implied by the title, a history of the USA that gives some indication as to how the future of the country might pan out, but a collection of stories that illuminate some of the ways in which the founding ideas of America have panned out over the past 3 centuries.

Schama pulled off the trick of combining book with TV series in his magesterial History of Britain. But Britain is a different type of historical beast - a deep, but relatively cohesive history with core substantive concepts - church, monarchy, parliament, around which the key shaping themes of British identity have developed. America has a much shorter, yet far more expansive history that encompasses a raft of themes. To name merely some: capitalism, power, clash of civilizations, a secular constitution in a Christian country, militarism without the corresponding desire for a global empire. It is impossible to do all these themes justice in a single volume that tells the history of America by drawing on stories from some of its architypal sons and daugthers - such as the steadfast General Montgomery Meigs, and, more recently, an Islamic American called Chuck who struggles with faith and identity in the post September 11 years.

The ideas in this book are clearly slung around the shooting schedule for the corresponding TV series. And the problem with this is what makes compelling TV doesn't necessarily yield crisp, rigorous historical analysis. Especially given the weight and range of themes Schama wrestles with here, like a 19th Century cowboy trying to marshall a stampede out on the long drive. Schama mixes personal experience, name dropping and journalism (the Iowa primaries where Obama made a key splash, a Downing Street dinner where he talks to George Bush, a trip to Denver Colorado), and uses such flimsy pretexts to draw out generalisations about how faith, army, race and ecomomics have cohered and shaped America out over the years. Sometimes the trick works -such as comparing the diligence of the early West Point cadets in nation building with the more bucaneering strategies of the military charged with sorting out Iraq post invasion. But often it doesn't. And at these moments Schama is left burbling purple prose platitudes about how the multi-racial melting pot of the USA gives much hope for the future, and how ironically Las Vegas may just be the springboard for solving global warming.

All well and good if you are some easy going, glib TV schmoozer. But Schama is not - he is one of our finest historians, with the rare quality these days of being comfortable in a range of time periods and across continents. He has the intellectual capacity to tackle the themes that are shaping the present, but like his fellow British historian Niall Ferguson (another brilliant scholar who now seems to only produce made for TV mush), he has sacrificed rigour for flashy dazzle. With the result that the serious lay reader of history - surely the target audience for such books - is likely to feel rather short changed.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 10, 2014 11:45 AM GMT


Our Times
Our Times
by A.N. Wilson
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wither Britannia?, 27 Feb 2010
This review is from: Our Times (Hardcover)
A.N. Wilson is not especially intelligent. And he is a hopeless historian. His views on how history teaching should be taught in schools is revealing:

'What is striking (about the Runnymede Trust's vision of a national past) is its negativity. Would... teachers have told children, as earlier generations were told, that Cromwell was the hero of modern republicanism, and the builder up of the British navy? Would they have been told that the Glorious Revolution saved Britain from becoming a Bourbon style monarchical dictatorship, shackled to an intolerant Roman Catholicism...'

So he goes on, depicting a vision of pedagogy that requires teacher to dictate a fixed (and highly prescribed) version of 'our Island story' to passively imbibing children.

Irrespective of whether this is a viable method of teaching nowadays, it is deeply insulting to both teacher and student. I am a history teacher, and firmly believe that the whole purpose of education is to encourage to think about the history they learn. To develop their critical faculties to they develop an understanding of how history really works: by unintended consequence, by debate, by accident, by unexpected change. Wilson would have us all become drones of a ministry of 'Island Story', repeating the same spiel ad nauseam about Britain's glorious past, thus his contriubtion to the history education debate becomes another tired salvo in the tedious ingratiating multiculturalists v safe traditionalists debate.

Our children deserve better.

But, as I said at the start, Wilson is not especially intelligent - his prose lacks the piercing, rigorously argued insight of more sophisticated non-fiction. And he is a pretty hopeless historian.

But enough of his flaws. On to his strengths. And there are many. Wilson is hugely well educated and, a rare thing amongst modern journalists in Britain, very well read (he is one of the few people alive nowdays to have read all of Walter Scott for instance). He is also a first rate gossip. This fascinating, sometimes funny, sometimes plain barmy history of modern Britain is something no academic historian could ever produce. Wilson produces a highly odd synthesis of cultural totems (such as the Lord of the Rings and Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials), with forgotten British society stories - such as Doris Day being introduced as 'Diana Clunt by the flustered vicar of Swindon; and highly personal political analysis - he lambasts Roy Wilson as the hapless 'Woy' throughout, and has contempt for pretty much every political figure of 'Our Times', to produce a wonderful rant about modern life.

Not everyone would agree with Wilson's analysis - that a loss of Christian faith has led to a deep spiritual vacuum in modern life, where traditional values have been usurped by a multicultural hotch potch of mediocrity, murder (the Stephen Lawrence case comes in for interesting scrutiny) and junk food. He has old fashioned manners of speech - calling the poor 'lumpenproletariat', taking the term from Marx, for instance.

But he is not simply the old fashioned conservative who believes everything was better in the past either. He picks up on Harold MacMillan's hypocricies - opposing the Apartheid regime in South Africa, yet hardly countenancing the idea of blacks turning up on one of his shooting weekend. And he is happy to puncture the follies of free market right as well as socialist left.

In fact, hardly anyone assault in this scathing, at times ranting depiction of Britain in its post-Imperial decline years. It mixes high politics with tart gossip, thus making it far easier bedtime reading than many academic tomes of the period. And it is much better than Wilson's own journalism for the Daily Mail, in which he drones on about how single mothers should be steralised and the usual pap to fulfil the editorial requirements of the popular press.


Psycho Too
Psycho Too
by Will Self
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Dubai essay, mediocre columns, 4 Jan 2010
This review is from: Psycho Too (Hardcover)
Will Self began his psychogeography excursions in the legacy of 1950s French Situationist Guy Debord. A man who, with his mates, decided that if they got hog whimperingly drunk on red wine and wandered across Paris they would break the man-machine matrix of modern capitalism with its micro-worlds of work-consume-die.

They failed, unsurprisingly. But Will Self is a contemporary version of the Situationists as he refuses to comply with our everyday modes of transport - the hermetically sealed units of plane, car, taxi that constrain our working and leisure lives. He has carved a niche in the walking world of 'airport walks' - walking from airports into city centres, a walk no one else takes. The aim is to crash different zones together. So in his first book on psychogeogrpahy Self walked from his house, to Heathrow, then flew to JFK and walked from there to Manhattan. Self claims the body doesn't register the flight so the walk feels seamless from South London straight to the centre of New York.

This time he repeats the trick with an even more bizarre walk from the late J.G. Ballard's house to 'The World' - a simulacrum of the world on a series of floating islands in Dubai. A preposterous venture, now seemingly doomed by the credit crunch. Self's meditations on the weird atmosphere of the Arab playground are rendered with terrific scabrous abrasion: at one point he coins one of his most scatalogical metaphors describing Dubai with its 'priapic skyscrapers and lubrication of Western fast food fat, alcohol and sun cream, being thrust into the parted arse cheeks of the rest of the umma - an act of tectonic sodomy that might have been purposely calculated to inflame the honour of the Islamists'.

Dubai is possibly the type of place Self despises the most - an artificial hedonism centre where no one walks anywhere (it is too hot), nothing is natural or rooted in a proper sense of place, and the master - slave relationship is propounded as dark skinned labourers toil in the sun to build and serve the constructions of the mighty capitalist classes.

The rest of the book is padded out with Self's Independent Newspaper Pyschogeography columns. None of them are long enough to have the same ideological power as the Dubai essay (Self himself has claimed you can only appreciate the picaresque of a walk after 20 miles or so). As a result many of the columns seem a bit like brief strolls by comparison, half baked and glibly tossed off.

Psychogeography is a fascinating modern phenomenon. This book should inspire more people to shun the usual routes of their everyday existence and seek out fresh insights in the more liminal spaces of Britain and elsewhere.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2010 10:14 AM GMT


Seasonal Suicide Notes: My Life as it is Lived
Seasonal Suicide Notes: My Life as it is Lived
by Roger Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.86

32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scabrously brilliant, 25 Oct 2009
I asked for this book in the Picadilly branch of Waterstones, 'That's by Lewis Roger' said the pretty sales assistant. An apposite anecdote given the bile contained within this book. Lewis Roger is a grub street journalist trying to make a living when grub street has collapsed and instead of living in London schmoozing with literary types he is washed up in the 'Herefordshire Balkans'.

This short book is a seriously funny account of his life, his complaints, and his erstwhile desire for recognition. Following a much misunderstood, much maligned biography of Anthony Burgess (10 copies sold in the last year of counting), Lewis bewails just about every successful recent British writer/celeb. Delightfully in various ways, he lays into Clive James - a writer of 'mouldy fudge', Andrew Roberts (a baboon), Ned Sherrin, Simon Cowell, Julian Barnes (and his late wife Pat Kavanagh), Jeremy Clarkson, 'sad mother' Julie Myerson and best of all, Harold Pinter (obit) 'what a dreadful clanking beast he was'. Heaven knows how he got this past the libel lawyers. I for one am delighted he did.

Interspersed with this literary bile are delightful snippets of his life as a marooned intellectual in the provinces. He cuts out articles from the local paper and offers snippets of local life: 'Age Concern has introduced a Toe Nail Cutting Scheme in the Community Centre run by "our trained volunteers", and tells filthy jokes picked up from Barry Cryer.

Also in these diaries are laments at his health (he is fat and has fat person's ailments), his kids, his class (he was a butcher's son and feels the London establishment looks down on him accordingly), his lack of money, his envy at other people's money (such as Gyles Brandreth and the late Alan Coren) and his continual snubbing by his publisher's literary parties (which he doesn't want to attend anyway).

Frustrated at being born in a time when the commercial imperative is everything in publishing (true, I used to work as one), and the weak collapse of the educated elites as they pump out more Jordan and Jamie Oliver, Lewis fancies himself as a contemporary, neglected version of his hero Anthony Burgess: a man of voracious intellectual appetites, though sadly without anyone to appreciate it. In the end, Suicide Notes is more like a contemporary Diary of a Nobody (extracted from in the epigram).

Some people predict this book to become a cult classic and I certainly hope it does, as this book is one of the funniest I have read. I think Lewis is due a break, just so pretty Waterstone's assistants will know his name. I think he would like that.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 22, 2010 10:27 AM BST


Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes
Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes
by Will Self
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.52

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Filthy London, 28 Dec 2008
4 stories all on a liverish theme in this collection. Will Self has for a while now served up stories that portray our consciousness as a ragged, fleeting entity. Human beings, especially those living in urban connurbations are merely bags of desires, needing instant gratification. Qualities such as beauty, care, love, commitment and meaning has exited stage left long ago.

3 of the stories focus on the familiar Selfland of media London. 'Foie Humain' is set in the Plantation Club (a roman a clef on the notorious Colony room, now shut down) whose denizens perpetuate a filthy gavage like the geese farmers of the Dordogne on their hapless barman.

Prometheus is a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth set in the glib, drug fuelled London advertising scene. Prometheus is a wildly successful copywriter, who can breathe fire into the most sodden of products, but he is chained to the porcelain rock of his toilet while a vulture feeds on his liver every day, followed by regeneration. A nice trope to define much of modern London media life.

Drugs feature in the final story, Birdy Num Num, told from the viewpoint of the hepatitis C virus, another interesting exercise in Self probing new fictional angles but the result is like some of his earlier fictional ideas from his drug phase - an interesting conceit that is underworked in the execution.

Leberknodel (Liver Dumplings) is a novella length story that leaves London and instead treads the less worn fictional terrain of Zurich. Joyce is a retired hospital administrator with cancer who travels to Switzerland with her daughter. Regretting her lack of appreciation of the small trivial things in life, she turns down the lethal dose, and miraculously finds that her cancer has gone into submission. Now - in the cockpit of Swiss orderliness - she has plenty of time to appreciate the mundane, but at what price?

Self is a witty and acerbic satirist, who can draw out mot justes and acid turns of phrase from his quiver as fleetingly at Robin Hood drew arrows. Writing comes easily to him. But beneath the surface of the thousands of words he hammers out each year, you can sense his deep disappointment with humanity. Like all the best satirists, Self believes we humans are capable of better. The most revealing passages in Liver are not the verbose deconstructions of London topography 'the sphincter of the Old Street roundabout', nor its ghastly inhabitants, but the odd peans to beauty and humanity - a red admiral butterfly, the thought of a reformed prisoner teaching children with learning difficulties.

Selfland is a murky place, and Will Self takes on the wretched fictional job of forcing his nose up against its many smelly vices and uglinesses. But he has also become a self confessed walking addict in recent years, and his perambulations enable him to escape the filth of trendy London, and appreciate a human existence that can be more elevated, even if only fleetingly.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 21, 2013 8:35 PM GMT


Diary of a Bad Year
Diary of a Bad Year
by J M Coetzee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.97

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Encompasses much of the contemporary ache, 21 Sep 2007
This review is from: Diary of a Bad Year (Hardcover)
Coetzee, as he approaches old age, and the dark backing of what lies beyond, seems to share with that other great contemporary of his, Philip Roth, an obsession with eros, and thanatos, and the metaphysical wistfulness and ache of the heart this creates - in other words, the longing of old men who can't shag attractive young women any more.

Roth is the jazzier of the two stylists, Coetzee the more philosophical, the more willing to stare deep into the hard essence of things, but both men these days are producing short, magnificent metafictions that encompass so much of the great poetic wisdom they have accumulated over their writing lives.

Diary of a Bad Year has echoes of Disgrace (which now looks like it will be Coetzee's last 'conventional' novel), in that an elderly writer develops an infatuation with a young, beautiful woman - this time, Anya, a half Phillipino woman acutely aware of her sexual magnetism and the power it holds over men. The writer, Juan Coetzee, who is a sort of fictional projection of the real JC, is commissioned to write a series of cultural and political essays for a German anthology entitled 'Strong Opinions' (clear Nabokovian echoes). The book is set out in a curious manner - divided horizontally by ruled lines in three sections. The top section contains the essays Coetzee writes - on a vast number of subjects: the state, democracy, terrorism, music, Tony Blair, the kiss, animal rights (but nothing, curiously, on global warming, probably the definining issue of the era - I would be interested to read Coetzee's views on the subject). The middle and bottom sections are the novel proper parts of the book - contrapuntal voices of Coetzee's telling of the story as he commissions Anya to become his typist for his manuscript, and her version of events as she becomes more involved in the life of this curious, melancholy, solitary old writer and the suspicious attentions of her boyfriend, Alan, an investment consultant whose world view and male jealousies are predictably at loggerheads with Coetzee.

How to read such a novel? Unclear. You can read the strong opinions first in each chapter, then turn your attention to the thin slivers of story; or you can do what I did - alternate between them, sometimes hunkering down to engage with the ficto-factual opinions of Coetzee, sometimes (more likely) spooling a way along the fictional rope and turning back to pick up the essays.

Some reviewers have criticized this book as offering thin fare, not a proper novel with meat to bite into, but I found the book, with its curious playfulness with form, built up a compelling picture of contemporary clashes in world view, politics, lifestyle, masculinity, and generational change that stiches an uneasy and formidably perceptive seam close to the surface of the anxieties of millions of people living in relative democratic security at this time.


Newcastle University: Past, Present and Future
Newcastle University: Past, Present and Future
by Norman McCord
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £42.42

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Teriffic portrait, 5 Feb 2007
The only existing history of Newcastle University is a rather dry volume by Ernest Bettenson published in the 1970s, complete with crusty civic aerial picture of the campus. Nowadays, the vision of Newcastle University is far brighter. With the Great North Museum, The famous Devonshire building (completely environmentally self sufifcient), nanotechnology labs, a thriving Medical School, Newcastle deserves a decent potrayal.

Edited by Norman McCord (erstwhile keeper of all knowledge of the University and its history), and backed up with essays and stories from a wide range of alumni and staff, this book is a great addition for anyone wanting to know what life at Newcastle University is really like.


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