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Found 8 results

  1. William Burroughs, Junky This compelling autobiography of the leading Beat writer is for me reminder that gold often lies among the trash in the centre of the city dump. Years ago I sampled Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, but gave up in despair at its incongruities, its sudden passages of brilliance being insufficient to compensate for what often seemed mind-wandering drivel. I thought I’d never touch Burroughs again. Junky, however is something else; its sad-eyed, intelligent and honest writing strikes a melancholy chord. I might even try him again. Like much American autobiography Junky captures the reader from the start with its tough no nonsense, stick to the facts approach to story-telling. Open the book at any page and you find passages like this: ‘I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City. I had been drinking for about two weeks. I was sitting in a booth with three Mexicans drinking tequila. The Mexicans were fairly well-dressed. One of them spoke English. A middle-aged, heavy-set Mexican with a sad, sweet sang songs and played the guitar.’ It’s difficult not to want to know more. Burroughs sets the scene, then focusses on one character, a well-dressed musician in a dive bar. What will happen? This deadpan, Hemingway style never becomes monotonous. The reader believes in the writer’s integrity and trusts him to tell it like it was. Of course, the writing is not as artless as it seems. As in Hemingway, in a story such as ‘The Killers’ the quietness conceals an underlying threat, a suggestion of desperation and violence. This is Mexico, dammit, and our narrator is a wily and possibly dangerous psychopath. The surprising thing about this notorious drug-fiend and burnt out literary genius is that he came from a highly respectable middle-class background, attended ‘one of the Big Three universities’ and later ‘saw a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system, as the sociologists say.’ Hence this prose in a paragraph from Burroughs’ Prologue is, compared to the rest of the narrative, sophisticated, well-muscled, just as sharp and cynical, but more inclined to elaboration, yet ending colloquially, ‘But these people were jerks … and I cooled off on the setup.’ I could guarantee that once you pick up this book, the Penguin edition of which bears the warning or invitation ‘Keep out of Children’s Reach,’ you will not easily put it down.
  2. De Botton, Alaine. Essays in Love In her introduction to de Botton’s book (Picador Classics) Sheila Heti begins, ‘Essays in Love has been classified as a novel, but it’s a very strange novel.’ It is, she says, ‘a guide through the landscape of contemporary romance.’ In the book de Botton makes a habit of reflecting on a previous paragraph telling the story of (presumably his) love affair with Chloe, a woman whom he meets by chance sitting next to him on a Paris-London flight. Thus the novel-memoir seems at times to be a mere jumping of point to a profound analysis of the trite business of falling in love - and of course inevitably the disillusion inherent in that commonplace but unique event. I must confess that I am often puzzled by the memoir genre - how much is ‘true’ and how much falsified for the sake of art? In books about love affairs, which this absolutely is, how constant is the point of view? How can the reader believe in the ‘facts’ as retailed by the narrator? Well, de Botton (who wrote this book in his early twenties) does a masterly job of analysing the ebb and flow of desire, beginning with rapture over finding that the lovers have so much in common that some supernatural agency must have pre-determined their meeting. ‘I love chocolate, don’t you?’ asked Chloe. ‘I can’t understand people who don’t like chocolate.’ Well, the narrator, the ‘I’ in the story, de Botton or a version of him, hates chocolate: ‘I had been more or less allergic to chocolate all my life.’ So of course in the ‘story’ the narrator has to lie, or else run the risk of losing the ‘angel’ as Chloe is soon to become. This is the key to the novel, focusing on a mundane preference and lying about one’s true feelings. It’s what we all would do in the circumstances. It’s both true to life, and perfect for art. Now, whether the ‘real’ de Botton likes or hates chocolate is a moot point, one which the reader should not, according to convention at least, ask. What I liked about the story (I almost said ‘loved’ but then recalled de Botton’s complex of analyses of the word) and about the philosophical commentary that accompanies it is its lucidity, its honesty about feeling and beliefs, those transient markers we cling to - and eventually are obliged to release from our grasp. But the book is not all Freudian or Marxian analysis (Marx is the term confusingly used in the book to refer to Marx the comedian) but a moving and totally convincing ‘love story,’ telling it like it is, a rare thing in fiction.
  3. McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man Frank McCourt’s memoir on his teaching experience is divided into three Parts, the first and longest dealing with his experience of surviving eight years at McKee Vocational and Technical School, Staten Island. In Part Two he moves to New York Community College and in Part Three, after two years studying in Dublin for an aborted PhD at Trinity College, he returns to America to become a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For most of the book Frank is in the classroom, facing non-academic pupils who yearn to be free of discipline and routine. He learns their tricks and indeed, much to the detriment of his reputation as a teacher, encourages their bid for freedom. If they want stories about his life of poverty in Ireland he’ll tell them, if they want outside activities, such as movie-going, he’ll take them and even pay for them from his meagre earnings. Frank is a very earnest and honest man, not afraid to admit ignorance, not afraid of losing dignity and devoted to the thankless task of what he believes in, something honorifically known as teaching. In between trudging through mountains of illiterate scripts, Frank manages to tell the reader that he got married, had two children and got divorced; but the focus of the book is on that strange routine and for the most part useless activity of ‘teaching,’ in other words occupying and entertaining the disinterested and cheeky adolescents before him. He is the Pied Piper leading his charges to another world - a world of something called ‘culture,’ where words on the page are substituted for popcorn and candy. It’s a heroic journey, but one founded on the belief and enthusiasm of one man - Frank McCourt. Although frequently reminded of the importance of sticking to the syllabus, Frank goes his own way. Like the maverick schoolmaster AS Neill, Frank believes in Hearts not Heads in the School. The reader empathises with him and with his stand against snobs such as the academic Dahlberg, who asks Frank what he’s reading. Frank replies O’Casey, whose natural writing about growing up in Dublin even matched the work of the ancient masters. ‘If you admire so-called natural writing you can always scrutinize the walls of a public lavatory,’ was Dahlberg’s riposte. ‘My face was hot and I blurted, “O’Casey fought his way out of the slums of Dublin. He was half blind. He’s a … a … champion of the worker …. He’s as good as you anytime. The whole world knows Sean O’Casey. Who ever heard of you?” [speech marks added] To which Dahlberg invites him to leave the party.
  4. An elderly couple become foster carers in their mid-sixties. The Times Higher Education of June 2015 wrote in its column What Are You Reading? ('A look over the shoulders of our scholar reviewers') : "This is an unusual, amusing, sometimes heart-rending memoir. Learmont offers a compendium of family breakdowns and other social problems, narrated in a style that ranges from Catch-22 to Bertie Wooster. The Learmonts are now enjoying 'a second retirement' in Andorra, and after reading this book, you feel they deserve it." A non-fiction book with two intrepid oldies.
  5. "This book is about a woman who suffers early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice Howland, a 50-year-old woman, is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned linguistics expert. She is married to an equally successful husband, and they have three grown children. The disease takes hold swiftly, and it changes Alice’s relationship with her family and the world." The above is a short outline of the book. The author, Lisa Genova, is herself a neuroscientist and self published this book which has been made into a movie. It is interesting and agonizing and shows us a world where a woman of fifty who is brilliant, accomplished, physically fit and leads a hectic and productive life, slowly lose her sense of self. The book gives us some insight into what devastation this disease, which currently has no cure, can cause in a family who can see the person who looks the same but whose mind is slowly being eroded. This isn't a book that can be read for entertainment but it does shed some light on a heartbreaking condition.
  6. Am reading about the Coast Watcher's network on the Solomon Islands in WWII - really amazing what these brave people did and endured. Alone on Guadalcanal. - Martin Clemens
  7. “Pretty Ugly – How Low Self-Esteem Almost Ruined My Life” is a biography of sorts written with dramatic, real-life reflections of the author’s own life in the form of short stories. Chapter by chapter this book shares hard-core experiences and testimonies that work to inspire and encourage others that may have been or may be going through the same types of challenges Barbara Barnes went through that are largely ignored by the masses most of the time. In this book Barbara M. Barnes pours out her heart and soul as she steps into the realm of realistic transparency to share a piece of her soul with the world. The book is an easy read written with true-to-life language and it is pieced together like a literary quilt composed for readers to cover themselves with the comfort and encouragement it offers to real women in the real world is considered. Read this book and break free!
  8. Five Days in May transported me briefly back to the uncertain days following the UK general election in 2010 from which the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition emerged. Andrew Adonis (or, to give him his full title, Lord Adonis of Camden Town) had been in incumbent Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Cabinet and was a member of the Party's negotiating team following the election. Five Days in May is, to all intents and purposes, his diary of the frantic 5 days between the election and the new government being formed. Added to the Kindle edition I have is a more rueful and leisurely reflection written earlier this year. Those living in countries where coalition politics is the norm might wonder what all the fuss is about, but Adonis is describing the formation of the first UK national coalition government since World War II; none of the protagonists is sure of the rules of engagement and the uncertainty lends the book an air of tension even when one knows the outcome. This is welcome in the often staid genre that is political memoir. However, whilst reading, one has to bear in mind which side Adonis is on. He places the blame squarely on the Liberal Democrats for his party being unable to form a coalition with them. He accuses Nick Clegg and co. of never having seriously considered going into partnership with Labour and that the two parties were only talking so the Lib Dems could get the Tories to raise their offer. He claims the Lib Dems gave the press misleading briefings on the progress and cordiality of their talks and that they spent far longer talking to the Tories than to his team. He plays down what was clearly the chief stumbling block, which wasn't policy but what role, if any, Gordon Brown should play in any government. He also, perhaps rightly, accuses his party of almost craving Opposition, of wanting to go and lick their wounds in the wilderness for a few years. As someone who has supported Labour and the Lib Dems at various times, I have some sympathy with much of what Adonis writes, particularly in his coda about what a mistake the Lib Dems made not just in going with the Tories, but also how they have limited their role in the coalition through several mistakes of their own making. This is not a book for those unfamiliar with UK domestic politics, as a bewildering array of senior British politicians make appearances (although, inevitably, few of them are Tories). It is though, as tense a read as many thrillers I've come across.
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