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Barry Bootle

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The Sea
The Sea
by John Banville
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars That sense of felt life, 15 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Sea (Paperback)
What makes a great writer great? Well.....we could talk about that one for hours. But surely at least part of the answer is this; the best writers are the ones that can consistently make a reader think (often with a little gasp of disbelief), "Wow! That's what it feels like to be alive!" What someone, I forget who, once described as "a sense of felt life."
Out of the authors I've read, Joyce is probably the best at it, when he's not busy showing off what an erudite fellow he is. Nabakov knows he can do it, and does it with chutzpah. Marilynne Robinson does it in the most marvellously subtle way. I recently read Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and he, at times, managed it, though perhaps not with the type of regularity that could qualify him to sit at the top tables.
And John Banville? He can do it, oh yes, most assuredly he can. What a writer he is! His peripheral characters - the Colonel and Anna's father spring particularly to mind - seem so much more real that the central characters of lesser writers, even though he has spent perhaps a page or two fleshing them out, rather than an entire novel. Out of the writers listed above, he reminds me most of Nabakov - not as consistently brilliant, perhaps, but with the same bravura style. Here’s a writer who has mastered his art, and knows he has mastered it, and doesn’t mind who knows he has mastered it. The Sea 's a rich word-soup and, like rich food, I could only take a little of it a time.
Some readers have commented that they found the central character irritating, and therefore struggled to care about him. As someone who has grown similarly exasperated by many an Ian McEwan novel, I can certainly sympathise, and there’s no doubt that Max Morden is flawed – a self obsessed social climber, a dilettante, a dawdling flaneur who has lived off his wife’s money for most of his life, at least a semi-alcoholic, and a navel-gazer of the highest order. He is, one suspects, fairly unreliable as a husband and father, and certainly monumentally unreliable as a narrator. However, when all’s said and done, for all the novel’s preoccupation with identity and the slipperiness of memory (common Banville tropes, by all accounts) this is, first and foremost, a novel about a husband grieving for his wife, and I grew to care about Max a great deal. I finished the book yesterday, on the train to work, and some of my more observant fellow commuters might have wondered why that chap in the suit was looking out of the window and trying, and failing, not to cry.


Bears in the Night (Bright and Early Books)
Bears in the Night (Bright and Early Books)
by Michael Berenstain
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Charming and educational, 3 Jun. 2015
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I loved this as a child and, nearly forty years later, I love reading it to my son! A charming mini-adventure, and its repetition of a handful of simple words make it ideal for early readers. Can't recommend it enough.


Pocket Guide to Pamplona's Fiesta of San Fermin (2nd Edition)
Pocket Guide to Pamplona's Fiesta of San Fermin (2nd Edition)
Price: £4.62

4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a look, 3 Jun. 2015
I found this a very useful guide - the author is clearly very knowledgeable/passionate about the subject. Would definitely recommend it if you are planning a visit.


A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
by Eimear McBride
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book with a half-formed plot, 14 May 2015
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I was really looking forward to this one, what with all the lavish praise that's been heaped on it, the awards it's received, and the backstory. The last is probably familiar to most of us by now, but just in case you haven't heard it, here it is; McBride searched in vain for a publisher for years, was rejected again and again (with one publisher stating it was "probably a masterpiece" but that it wouldn't find a large enough readership to make it commercially viable), and was finally taken up by Galley Beggar, a small independent. The general consensus seems to be that the UK publishing scene is overly timid, too driven by financial sensibilities, needs it's head read, etc. Well, all these things are probably true. But is the book a masterpiece? For me, probably not.
That's not to say it doesn't contain some masterful moments. The opening chapter, where the unnamed (and as yet unborn) narrator speaks to her older brother is dazzling. Throughout the novel, the portrayal of the relationship between the two is tremendously affecting, and wonderfully well done. The rest of the plot, though, could lifted straight from Irish literature's central casting. Abusive mother? Check. Damp house? Check? Fire-and-brimstone grandfather? Check. Pervert uncle? Check. Lashings of Catholic guilt? Check. Sodomy? Check. (The last seems de rigeur for any modern literature pertaining to be serious, although to McBride's credit, she doesn't attempt to describe it in any particularly hifalutin way, as others, naming no names, have done). I found it all a bit of a melange of misery-lit clichés, and rather wearing. OK, plot is not the most important thing in literary fiction, but if you are going to have one, make it a good one.
My greatest issue, however, is with the style. Stream of consciousness writing works brilliantly (when done well) when it's of the moment, descriptive of the half-formed thoughts we all have, before they coalesce into cogent speech - the closest writing can get, in fact, to depicting how life really feels. And when McBride does it for scenes which are set in the moment, in real time, it is indeed brilliant. But the format doesn't work for, say, describing the passage of several days in a few lines (describing starting a new school, for example, she says "I be the new girl" - why?), and it's problematic to sustain it for an entire novel, set over the course of twenty-odd years. It comes across as dislocated and, at times (sorry to say) pretentious.
I'm not disputing that McBride has huge talent, but I fear proclamations of genius may be premature. I for one will reserve judgement until I see what she does next.


Brand New Ancients
Brand New Ancients
by Kate Tempest
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £9.98

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When ancient Greece meets kitchen sink, 5 Nov. 2014
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This review is from: Brand New Ancients (Audio CD)
If Homer got bladdered with Ken Loach in a south London pub, they might come up with something like this. The scope is epic, but the drama has the sort of exquisite fragility that only comes from brilliant writing about the most ordinary of souls. At times, I was so scared for Tempest's characters I felt physically sick.
A Ted Hughes award, Mercury prize shortlist, and all by the time she's twenty-eight. Whither now for our Kate? I can't wait to find out. She's already my hero.


Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
by John Edward Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gives the mudane its beautiful due, 26 Jun. 2014
Looking through the reviews posted here, one is struck by the refrain, "Why isn't this book more famous?" Yet I think we should count ourselves lucky that it was published at all, that it is at last being widely appreciated decades after its publication, because if it had been written in the 21st century, I'm not sure it would even have been taken on. In this world of hooks and killer opening lines, it would take a brave agent or commissioning editor indeed to champion a book that, on its opening page, basically says that the main character is someone who left little impression on the world, a man no one thought a great deal of; a failure or, at best, a very qualified success.
William Stoner is a son of the heartland soil who becomes an academic and teacher. He marries badly, spends his entire career at the same university, publishes one 'pedestrian' book, suffers through departmental feuding, has an affair, and, at the end of the book, he dies. Great events of the time - the two World Wars, the Great Depression - are viewed through the prism of academia. They do not directly affect the tenured professor, yet indirectly, they affect him a great deal.
John Williams is a wonderful writer. It seems his unshowy prose could capture every nuance of human emotion, or every hue on a magpie's wing. Here is a writer who, to quote John Updike, truly can "give the mundane its beautiful due."
In the same way Stoner cannot articulate the importance of literature to his students, I don't feel able to explain quite what makes this such a marvellous book. And yet it is marvellous - of that I'm quite sure.


The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Offered by Shop4World
Price: £3.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Another sunrise with the Bury boys, 17 April 2014
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So, Elbow are back - and not before time.
Some have said this album lacks ambition, and there's something to be said for that, which is why I've rated it at four stars instead of five. But Elbow playing it safe are still much better, musically and lyrically, than most of the stuff out there. This album is a low-key affair, with an immersive quality that reminds me of "Asleep In The Back". The closest they get to an anthem is probably "My Sad Captains", a cracking song that perfectly captures the joy of friendship, and the melancholy of growing older.
When I listen to Elbow, the world always seems a slightly nicer, sadder, and more beautiful place, and for that, I am very grateful to them.


Portrait
Portrait
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Bittersweet and beautiful, 31 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Portrait (Audio CD)
This is a gem. I've rated it as four rather than five as a couple of the tracks are fillers, but most of them are wonderful - simple and beautiful harmonies and a bittersweet voice that seems to have lived an age, the sort of stuff that will have you pulling your car over and sobbing your heart out.


Our Friends In The North [DVD] [1996]
Our Friends In The North [DVD] [1996]
Dvd ~ Christopher Eccleston
Price: £14.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of British, 31 Jan. 2014
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A stellar cast on top of its game. A script that thrums with a barely-supressed anger at corruption and social injutice. A shining example of what can be achieved when you give a gifted writer editorial control, a la HBO. A sobering reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.08

62 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not much hope, but maybe just enough, 22 Mar. 2013
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I must confess I picked this book up with some trepidation. The subtitle - "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum" - and the cover (of my copy), a young boy sprinting up steps into bright sunlight, made me think it might be another of those. You know, those. The post-Slumdog reportage. "Yes, conditions in Indian slums are appalling. But wait! Look at the way the children run and play! The sights, the smells! The way they can still laugh, in the face of such hardship. The way they just get on with the life they've got!" (What else are they supposed to do?) "So life-affirming!"
The hope of it all!
"Slumdog" is a good film. And a lot of the reportage is also good, and if it's not it's generally well-meaning. But I find it all a bit discomfiting. It's human to believe in hope, but it seems to me that, as Westerners, focussing on the small hopes that slum-dwellers have might be a convenient way of deflecting our own guilt that people have to live this way. (And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan castigating "Slumdog" for focussing on a small part of Indian life might be an Indian way of doing the same thing).
I thought this book might be more of the same. It wasn't.
Boo is no polemicist. She's a true journalist, and she tells this story with a journalistic dispassion, making it all the more affecting. (She has a novelist's eye, though; at times, the prose is breathtaking.) The stories are set in a small slum, rather than one of the giant cities-within-a-city like Dharavi; a wise choice, as she manages to paint a picture of a whole community, almost like a small village. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and at times it's downright confusing. But even this makes sense. After all, urban India is a confusing place, teeming with people.
Despite the wonderful writing, there were times when I felt I could not go on. When I read about the disease and the filth and children being bitten by rats as they slept. The fungus "like butterfly wings" that grows on feet in the monsoon season. The exploitation and corruption, the abuse of slum-dwellers by the authorities, the abuse of slum children by their own families. The unsolved murders and streets-sweepers left to die on the pavements, the infanticide and the many suicides. And the hope - what there is of it - is almost the worst. That a family, pursued by a rotten judicial system, might not go to prison for a crime they did not commit. That one slum-dweller might, just possibly, scramble over others and into a very slightly less hardscrabble life.
I cried again and again. I became very angry. Occasionally, I laughed out loud. At times I was so scared for the characters that I felt ill with it. And when I had finished, I thought about them all for a long time, and wondered what they are doing now, the ones that survived. Because, of course, there's no story-book ending. Jamal does not win his millions. He doesn't get his Latika. The story might end, but life in the slum staggers and claws and bites and struggles on.
The people of the slum do questionable things - sometimes terrible things - to survive. But I think there is hope. They also do good things. That people forced to live like this could ever be decent, live by any kind of moral code, gives one hope of a sort.


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