Category Archives: Books

Lady Susan

Next Best Thing productions - Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I recently took part in another Next Best Thing production: Lady Susan by Jane Austen. This was very different from previous shows, a “rehearsed reading” rather than a full play (which meant that it took a lot less preparation); the novella consists of 41 letters between the seven main characters, and seven of us read these letters in sequence with some acting (and a limited amount of direct speech, which we had to learn). The production was part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf literary festival, and was for one night only. I played Reginald de Courcey, the somewhat dashing younger brother of Lady Susan’s hosts, who starts off mocking Lady Susan as “a very distinguished flirt” before soon being reeled in by her flirtation and falling hopelessly for her.

It made an interesting and slightly less stressful change from previous acting roles. I only had two paragraphs to learn (makes a change from The Miser where I had about an hour’s worth of speech to memorise), and everything about the proceedings were much more laid back than usual (the fact that we were acting in a church – Saint Oswald’s on Abbeydale Road – also made a nice change from more formal theatre settings).

You can read Lady Susan in its entirety on this website.

Next up: Richard III!

In Persuasion Nation

From time to time I’ve ranted, here and elsewhere, about the amazing writing of George Saunders (“one of the funniest and most insane writers ever published in the New Yorker”, according the the New Yorker. And the natural successor to Kafka and Gogol, according to me). Actually, I’d been meaning to rant about how bloody hard it is to get most of his books over here – The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp was out of print when I tried to get hold of it, so in the end I had to resort to EBay, and when I recently tried to track down copies of Civilwarland in Bad Decline and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, I tried four bookshops (including the huge London Waterstones at ULU, which used to be Dillons) before finally tracking them down at Foyles.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah… Saunders’ new book In Persuasion Nation is out now in the states, and over here in a couple of months. And it has a pretty cool new Persuasion Nation website to go with it (with a great short story MP3 download).

The End of Faith

I’ve been holding off writing this entry, but now seems like the right time. I have been reading (almost finished now) Sam Harris‘s book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. It’s a frequently heavy-handed but nonetheless vital treatise on why religion is a black hole which will suck all of us to our eventual destruction unless we can rid ourselves of it.

Actually, it is a little more suble than that. The book’s real target is faith, which I would define as belief in an idea in the absence of (or even in opposition to) evidence. Harris, perhaps a little boldly, pinpoints faith as the cause of every major human conflict, including secular faiths such as Naziism and Stalinism. He also finds remnants of religion worth saving, in particular he has a lot of time for mysticism and exploration of the inner-self.

I’m frustrated that Harris frequently takes such a deliberately confrontational stance. I’m reminded of something Zaid told me a few years back, an impression he formed during a trip to America that for many Americans it’s not enough to be on the right side, to really win big you have to do your best to belittle and bludgeon your “opponents”. Of course this trait is not exclusively American, nor is it common to every American, but it does have a ring of truth to it and it’s certainly the case where Harris is concerned.

But… this book certainly provided me with plenty of quotes from religious texts on how our gods like us to smite the unbeliever, some shocking teachings which nowadays most Jews, Christians and Moslems choose to ignore or, sometimes rather torturously, read as metaphor (in the case of Islam, Harris gets rather carried away with himself, providing five tedious pages of quotes from the Koran telling us how Allah likes to treat unbelievers). You can see how easily a literal mind could find instructions in these millennia-old works of literature which would lead them to perpetrate acts such as yesterday’s bombings (and as a result I have spent the day listening in frustration to various pundits saying “this will not help the terrorists’ cause”, without apparently entertaining the simple thought that perhaps this is the terrorists’ cause?)

Anyway, below is the review I’ve just written for Amazon. I’ve also talked about this book at length on the Empty Space Reading Group, starting here.

I agree largely with Richard Morgan’s review, although I have given the book a higher rating because I believe that most of the fundamental arguments are correct and it is for the most part a good and very informative read.

The big shame, for me, was that Harris’s “pugilistic” stance is only likely to win him fans among the already-converted (which I confess I am. Goodness… “converted”, “confess”… this religion business really is quite pervasive, isn’t it?), but this book deals with such important topics that it needs to be made more palatable to those of more neutral persuasion, and to the religions moderates who Harris demonises. He frequently makes uneccesarily snidey side-swipes which do nothing to bolster his main argument, and for somebody so convinced of the importance of evidence-based rational discourse, he is irritatingly fond of the phrase “needless to say”.

I am not familiar enough with all of the sources quoted by Harris to know whether he always does a good job of representing them, but from the one or two examples (as quoted by Richard Morgan) where he doesn’t, and from his general (dare I say rather American-confrontational) “I’m gonna get you religion” attitude, I am left wondering about the reliability of some of his evidence.

And, yes, he doesn’t offer much in the way of a solution. This is ultimately a very depressing book: religious nuts are out there, they’re violent (because their god tells them to be) and sooner or later they will get hold of weapons of mass destruction.

But all that said, this is a fascinating book which tries, and sometimes succeeds, to get to the heart of a topic which is absolutely vital to our times.

Review of iCon: Steve Jobs

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything for publication. So last week, I was happy to put the finishing touches to a book review, for Brand Republic, of the book iCon – Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon. There’s something very different about writing for publication: I take so much care over it, I must have gone over this article at least twenty times, ironing out grammatical errors and unclear sentences. And the feeling of having done a job well leaves me with a little glow inside. You can read the review here: I hope you enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it.

iCon

Yay! A parcel arrived in the post this morning: a copy of iCon – Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S Young and William L Simon which Brand Republic have asked me to review. The cover says “advance uncorrected proofs – not for sale” which makes me think I ought to be quick with this one: I’d thought it was already out, but Amazon UK put the release date as 31st May; it would be nice to get a book review in ahead of the publication date, for a change.

It will be a very interesting read, especially to see whether it was worth all the fuss that Apple made, withdrawing other books from publisher Wiley from their Apple Store shelves. The title is, of course, a rather wonderful piece of word-play, although the publishers seem to insist it was un-intentional. If so, then they really ought to take a bit more care over their book titles, because the “second act” part seems to refer to F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line “there are no second acts in American lives” which as I learnt the other day is usually, incorrectly, taken to mean “you don’t get to make a comeback”, but what Fitzgerald really meant is that the American Ideal is no gap between desire and achievement (Act I establishes motivation; Act II is about overcoming obstacles; Act III is about achieving gratification. No Act II = no obstacles: desire leads directly to gratification with nothing inbetween the two). (Thanks for that, Al). Still, I suppose Jobs has faced a fairly monumental struggle, so the “greatest second act in the history of business”, although hyperbole, might not be entirely wide of the mark.

Cooking with Fernet Branca

Another book I mentioned I’d read recently was Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson. I picked it up in Bochum – it was the only book in the small “English” section in the bookshop which looked in the slightest bit interesting.

It was actually very funny, not out-of-this-world special but a good read. Its main character, Gerald, “effete Englishman, culinary adventurer, and ghostwriter to the stars” is an absolute up-his-own-arse tosser. But one of the wonders of the book is that by the end you really come to love him, despite his remaining throughout an up-his-own-arse tosser. His neighbour, Marta, the “ghastly Slavic slut” (she’s actually a marginally famous Voynovian composer, staying in Italy to write the score for a new Pacini film) keeps popping around with bottles of Fernet Branca; Gerald beomes convinced that she’s an alcoholic with a taste for the sickly stuff (Marta, meanwhile, forms the same opinion about him). Actually, Marta has just been donated a crate of the stuff and is desperate to get rid of it somehow. By the end of the book, though, they’re both hooked, but meanwhile Gerald keeps working Fernet Branca into his somewhat avant-garde recipes. Here’s an example of such a recipe (although lacking one of Gerald’s favourite staples, smoked cat), other favourites include “garlic & Fernet Branca ice-cream”, “otter with lobster sauce” and “alien pie”.

Fish Cake

No – we are not talking about exquisite fish and potato patties rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, that classic of English cuisine. This is a good deal more exotic, a Gerald Samper creation designed, as any work of art must be, to remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges. I perfected it while compiling a small volume provisionally entitled The Boys’ Reformatory Cookbook whose witty asides proved too much for the fifteen hidebound UK publishers I tried to interest before I lost faith in the project. (The typescript joined many others in my bottom drawer that together constitute the graveyard of my literary hopes. These include the libretto for a delightful and lubricious operetta, Vietato ai Minori, that I now despair of ever seeing set to music, ditto my ballet Jizzelle.)

Ingredients
377 gm self-raising flour
151 gm semolina
62 gm cornmeal
149 gm granulated sugar
83 gm unsalted butter
1 tinned mackerel (about 74 gm)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
99 gm freshly ground almonds
26 gm sultanas
Pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt (optional)

Stir the flour, semolina, cornmeal, sugar, eggs and almonds together. The mixture will be severely crumbly. Now use your fingers and work in the butter and the fish. Don’t despair: after five minutes or so it will confound you by taking on the correct fatty consistency. Add the sultanas, pepper and grated lemon. Still on the stodgy side? The optional yoghurt will cure that. Go on working until the dough is uniform, with no individual flecks of mackerel. Your fingers may ache but you can console yourself with the thought that your nails will be all the cleaner (also one of the hidden benefits of making one’s own bread). Set the mixture aside to rest for an hour. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 190°C – what used to be Regulo 5 in the dear dead days of the Radiation Cookbook – and oil a baking tin. When the hour is up transfer the dough to the tin and bake for forty minutes, or forty-four minutes if you become distracted by a drunken slut in a neighbouring cottage.

To taste GS’s Fish Cake at its best it should be left to stand for twenty-four hours. This enhances both texture and flavour, though don’t ask me how. On the grounds that lilies are much improved by gilding, this cake benefits from an austere icing: 226 gm icing sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons Fernet Branca. This will top off your masterpiece with a toothsome cap of an interesting ginger shade.

For incurable R&D types, a word of warning. You would be amazed by how few varieties of fish are really suitable for this recipe. I have found by far the best to be ‘Pinocchio’ brand tinned sgombri al naturale, readily available in most Italian supermarkets. Raked salmon runs them a close second. In the past I have also tried eel, baked halibut and kippers. This last was not a success and I gave it to the birds. There was something a little too fantastic about fish bones in an iced cake, though it may be just that I’m getting old. Once upon a time my bird table in the Home Counties was an oasis of cuisine expĂ©rimentale in a desert of dull fare. Birds must surely be bored by an unrelieved diet of worms, bacon rind and burnt toast. My slow path to culinary mastery was marked by offerings that became the height of avian fashion – the dernier cri, one might say, which occasionally they proved to be. One of the victims, a green woodpecker, was in turn converted into a tasty mouthful by glazing and truffling.

The Reader

I’m currently reading The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink. Not got very far yet, but I’m finding it remarkably lucid, readable and thought-provoking, a much easier read than most other translations from German (a language which seems to lend itself to leaden-footed prose when rendered in English). The chapter I just read also hit a lot of currently relevant buttons for me. First there was a reference to Stendahl’s Scarlet & Black (the copy which I donated to Bookcrossing resurfaced on a bus in Pontifract this morning) “I identified more with Julien Sorel’s relationship with Madame de Renal than the one with Mathilde de la Mole”. Secondly the narrator, Michael, finds himself increasingly taken with reading aloud to Hanna, something which has been on my mind a lot recently as I mentioned last week. Thirdly, as part of his journey into reading aloud Michael tells Hanna about “Hemingway’s story about the old man and his battle with the fish and the sea”, a central theme to Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake which I was listening to on an audiobook only last night. And finally, although I haven’t got that far in yet, the whole book deals with the issue of culpability for the Nazi Holocaust, something which is timely because of the recent 60th anniversary of VE day, but which has also been on my mind for other reasons lately (and which other media keep pushing around in my head – World War Two is another major theme in Timequake, and I recently went to see the excellent film Downfall [der Untergang]).

Reading has, I’m glad to say, taken a bigger and bigger part of my life recently, although the more I read, the more I want to read (and I find myself increasingly wanting to return to books that I, or rather a different “I”, read many years ago, in particular Josef Skvorecky‘s books The Cowards and The Engineer of Human Souls [both also “World War Two books” to a greater or lesser degree]).

So, before I forget, some other books I have read recently:

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: wonderful, beautiful. I’m a sucker for a soppy love story, and what a love story this is. But what I like about it most of all is that, having read quite a few stories in my life about time travel, all of them focusing on the technological and philosophical ramifications, it is so refreshing to read a book about the emotional effects of time travel, both for the traveller and for those who get to see him come and go, and can never quite predict when he’ll do either. This book had me crying; a good thing, in my opinion.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre: Also utterly wonderful, and completely deserving of its Booker Prize win.

Oh bugger, time to get the girls from school. More books soon, hopefully, Riddley Walker, Cooking with Fernet Branca, and anything else I can unearth in the archaeological mess surrounding my bed.

Heart of Darkness

I’ve finally started reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is a book which has been creeping into my consciousness for some time. I’m not quite sure how it all started, but the phrase “Heart of Darkness” has become such a part of the English language that I suspect there was always a germ hidden somewhere in my mind’s dark matter. It’s only since about two years ago that I realised it was the name of a novel.

Since then, references have cropped up with increasing frequency, as these things tend to once a speck of knowledge takes hold. I first had the notion that the original Heart of Darkness was in Indo-China. I think it may have been Guy’s references to the Heart of Darkness bar in Pnom Penh, coupled with seeing Apocalypse Now for the first time (better late than never). I finally worked out that the Congo was even darker than the Mekong, a discovery which coincided with my growing interest in this part of Africa (partly sparked by references in a short story which I wrote, partly by the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare which I am dying to see). Subsequently, I discovered a third, South American heart of darkness, watching Werner Herzog’s films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And then, reading The Heart of Darkness, to see Conrad describing the Thames as, in its day, another mysterious, treacherous, threatening river, the ancient Romans ever unsure as to what those pesky Brits are going to pull on them… TOO MUCH!

Anyway, all of this thinking about rivers and wildernesses… it keeps feeding a need to explore, deep inside me, a Conrad/Hemingway/Chatwin/Herzog urge. I want to be somewhere other.

The book itself… I’m not finding easy, it’s one of those books where my eyes keep deflecting off the page, I have to maintain maximum concentration to mine the richness of the prose. But every time I manage to do so, I am rewarded by beautiful gems (ivory?). I often think that I’d like to make notes of memorable quotes in the books I read, build up a nice little database like Niina’s, but apart from the fact that I never have anything to hand to take notes with, I don’t think I have an eye for soundbites (and usually when I read other peoples’ favourite quotes, I find myself longing for a bit more context). Anyway, this is a thought that struck me as I was reading last night, and there on a single page I spotted two prime suspects:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

and

No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone …

Exquisite Corpse

I recently finished reading Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin. An absolutely brilliant faux-autobiography of an English Surrealist artist “Caspar” and his all-consuming obsession with his apparently very ordinary muse Caroline. I was halfway through reading it when I visited the Museum Ludwig in Köln; I was so tempted to leave the book in one of the galleries holding their extensive Surrealist collection, it would make a lovely objet trouvé for some unsuspecting soul, but I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon the story unfinished. Never mind, now I’ve worked my way through it I’ll have to drop it off in another museum’s gallery of the surreal (perhaps with a Bookcrossing sticker inside, so that I can track its progress). Except that… I really want to read it again, now that I know the twist in the tale.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages from the novel, from a time when Caspar has lost Caroline and his purpose in life, and has become a war artist:

My commissioning by the W.A.C. coincided with the beginning of the Blitz in 1940 and this coincidence provided me with my artistic mission. I became a painter of ruins and firestorms and I thought of myself as the heir to Piranesi and Mad John Martin. I left my Surrealist box of tricks unopened for the remainder of the War. The Blitz provided its own Surrealist effects – a white horse galloping around inside a burning meat market and displaying all its teeth in a panicked, mirthless grin, a girl in a blue dress emerging with her skipping rope from clouds of black smoke and skipping calmly by, and the facades of buildings curving and distending like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Everywhere I walked I saw staircases which led nowhere, baths suspended apparently in mid-air, brick waterfalls flowing out of doorways and objects jumbled incongruously together in conformity with Lautreamont’s aesthetic prescription; ‘Beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table’. Long tongues of flame would leap out of every window of some great office block, like demons being expelled from a disenchanted castle. I was not really very aware of the Germans or their bombers: I felt rather that it was the fire that was our real enemy while water was our ally. At times I toyed with the notion that Britain had entered the War on the wrong side and that we should have allied with the glamorous fire against the dull and squelching water.

And then, a couple of pages later:

I heard the most extraordinary things. Huns disguised as nuns were at work surveying our coastal defences. The Germans had already attempted a sea-borne invasion and failed. Their bodies were still being washed up on the beaches. The Royal Family had been evacuated to Canada and a troupe of actors were now impersonating them in Buckingham Palace. A kind of werewolf preyed on the bomb sites, looking for fresh bodies to eat. Most people said that he looked like a fireman and some said that there was a whole crew of werewolf firemen operating in the East End. What the werewolves did not eat themselves they sold at the back doors of posh restaurants on the Strand and Piccadilly. Then again, the foreman of one salvage crew told me how he had been chatting up a foreign girl in uniform – a green uniform he did not recognise, perhaps of something like the Free Latvian Forces — when the air-raid siren went off. They were in the vicinity of Chancery Lane, but instead of going down into the tube station, as everyone else was doing, the girl took him by the arm and made him follow her. They passed through the nondescript-looking door of some official-looking building and descended a deep and dimly lit spiral staircase. At the bottom, the salvage foreman found himself in a shelter the like of which he had never dreamed of. All the other people sheltering there were female officers in the green uniforms of their foreign army. There were beds with clean white sheets, champagne in ice buckets and great piles of tinned foods. The foreman spent a night of ecstasy in that shelter. However, though he did his best to memorise the exact location of its exit, he told me that he was never able to come back at that place again.

I was fascinated by the proliferation of rumour and the elaboration of wartime folklore…