An example of simple genius | from Don Delillo

An example of simple genius | from Don Delillo

“It was the rooftop summer, drinks or dinner, a wedged garden with a wrought iron table that’s spored along its curved legs with oxide blight, and maybe those are old French roses climbing the chimney pot, a color called maiden’s blush, or a long terrace with a slate surface and birch trees in copper tubs and the laughter of a dozen people sounding small and precious in the night, floating over the cold soup towards skylights and domes and water tanks, or a hurry-up lunch, an old friend, beach chairs and takeout Chinese and how the snapdragons smell buttery in the sun.

This was Klara Sax’s summer at the roofline.”

Don DeLillo, Underworld,

A deceptively simple passage that offers so much in so few lines. Stripped away of unnecessary ‘fluff’, no room for those adverbs that pave the way to hell, as Stephen King once opined. DeLillo’s blend of simple description with introspection drops the reader into the scene, a silent witness, viewing and feeling the scene as the narrator sees it. Prose that bears the hallmarks of Joyce, Hemingway, and Woolf, with the added eye for detail and economy that comes from a literary apprenticeship served as copywriter among the Mad Men of 50s NYC. A passage of simple brilliance, a ‘show, don’t tell’ masterclass, hidden within the pages of DeLillo’s Pulitzer nominated American opus.

The ‘rooftop summer’, an immeadiate image, outside, on high, warm. ‘Wedged gardens’ precious, small sanctuaries, high within a crowded city landscape; the elegant quality of wrought iron furniture, its character defined by its rust; well-worn, faded from its former glory, but loved and full of story, perhaps. The heavy metals, the iron and copper, softened by the climbing roses, the ‘maiden’s blush’. It’s an idyll, an image that our narrator may be romanticising, looking back through nostalgic eyes at a time made more glorious through the passing years. ‘Maybe they’re French roses’ (maybe, perhaps, not?). It was lunch, it was night, it was drinking soup, eating Chinese food.The cascade of fractured memory, pieced together to create a beautiful bridge between fiction and truth.

Remembering that time, the warmth, a setting sun on an angular skyline, laughter, the smell of buttery snapdragons.

A time that was over too soon, unreliably, romantically recalled: forever ‘precious in the night, floating…’

A deceptively simple passage that offers so much in so few lines. Stripped away of unnecessary ‘fluff’, no room for those adverbs that pave the way to hell, as Stephen King once opined. DeLillo’s blend of simple description with introspection drops the reader into the scene, a silent witness, viewing and feeling the scene as the narrator sees it.

Prose that bears the hallmarks of Joyce, Hemingway, and Woolf, with the added eye for detail and economy that comes from a literary apprenticeship served as copywriter among the Mad Men of 50s NYC. A passage of simple brilliace, a ‘show, don’t tell’ masterclass, hidden within the pages of DeLillo’s Pulitzer nominated American opus.

The ‘rooftop summer’, an immeadiate image, outside, on high, warm. ‘Wedged gardens’ precious, small sanctuaries, high within a crowded city landscape; the elegant quality of wrought iron furniture, its character defined by its rust; well-worn, faded from its former glory, but loved and full of story, perhaps. The heavy metals, the iron and copper, softened by the climbing roses, the ‘maiden’s blush’.

It’s an idyll, an image that our narrator may be romanticising, looking back through nostalgic eyes at a time made more glorious through the passing of time. ‘Maybe they’re French roses’ (maybe, perhaps, not?). It was lunch, it was night, it was drinking soup, eating Chinese food.The cascade of fractured memory, pieced together to create a beautiful bridge between fiction and truth.

Remembering that time, the warmth, a setting sun on an angular skyline, laughter, the smell of buttery snapdragons.

A time that was over too soon, unreliably, romantically recalled: forever ‘precious in the night, floating…’

THE NOVELS OF JAY MCINERNEY

THE NOVELS OF JAY MCINERNEY

Fiction

The Novels of
Jay McInerney

It’s 6am

DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?

It’s the question asked of the unnamed central character in Jay McInerney’s seminal debut novel ‘Bright Lights, Big City.’

Since Bright Lights release in 1984 McInerney has released a further six novels as well as two collections of short stories and two non-fiction books about his passion for fine wine. Throughout his fiction we see familiar themes, among which we might see the directionless, hedonism of youth, struggles with fidelity and neuroses attached to growing old or growing up to numerous examples of eccentricity in the family.

Bright Lights, Big City

A week in the life of a wannabe writer. Bright Lights is a frenetic journey through mid-80′s Manhattan.

In the throes of despair following the split from his model wife, we journey through hazy, hungover mornings at work in the Department of Factual Verification of a high-brow magazine, following booze and drug induced nights before.

Written with sharp dialogue and laser-precise observation this is a seminal novel in 80′s American culture as McInerney creates a brilliant portrayal of a man spiralling downwards among the excesses of the glamorous, hedonistic world in which he inhabits.

Compared at the time to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is a dazzling debut novel from a writer who would go on to become one of America’s finest modern authors.

Bright LIghts, Big City

Ransom

Christopher Ransom is a young American living in Kyoto, Japan.

Struggling with the guilt of an event in his past Ransom throws himself into Japanese life and culture as if to do so would be to purge whatever wrongs he carries with him.

Although not as sharply prescient as Bright Lights,the book still engages us and if the novel occasionally descends towards cliche it is forgiven due to the characteristically wry episodic style, the well-observed cultural divides and some beautifully crafted dialogue.

And, with a stunning ending that that will surely cut to the bone.

Ransom

Story Of My Life

McInerney returns to 80′s New York for his 3rd Novel.

This time seen through the lens of Alison Poole; sharp-tongued, sexy girl about town. Alison is a drama school student sharing an apartment in Manhattan with her best friend.

Returning to familiar territory this is a terrific short novel with crackling dialogue, biting humour and some of the finest characterisations of the era.

Portraying an empty world of casual sex and even more casual cocaine usage, it’s a hilarious trip through a world of lost nights, absent parents, love-sick drug dealers and awkward moments at the gynaecologist before, as is ever the case with high excess, a tumbling crash down to earth.

Story of my Life

Brightness Falls

Russell and Corrine Calloway are the pioneers of wedded bliss among the rogues gallery of single sinners in 87′ Manhattan.

Russell, an idealistic publisher and Corrine, a stock-broker with an unusual sense of grounding are the central hub of this eclectic look at life, literature and high finance in New York prior to the bubble bursting.

Arguably the finest American novel of the past quarter-century this is a quite brilliant portrait of a city and a time. With some wonderful set-pieces, episodes that move from gut-burstingly funny to heart-breakingly sad in the turn of a page. Remarkably drawn characters that bring to mind creations of Dickens and Thackeray at their finest and a beautifully crafted story that depicts the sadness of a marriage in crisis set against the wider drama of the collapse of America’s capitalist dream.

As prescient today as it was then, this is a book for the ages and deserves to be considered a classic.

Brightness Falls

The Last of the Savages

Told from the viewpoint of repressed lawyer Patrick Keane, this is a look back at American cultural history in the final third of the 20th Century.

He recounts the unlikely friendship with Will Savage, the privileged son of a wealthy Southern land owner who rebels against his heritage, embracing black culture and the soul music that would grow to define an era. It’s a soulful journey of a friendship spawned in the boarding rooms of an elitist New England school in the 1960′s, surviving the tribulations that follow over the next three decades.

This is a beautifully written story of enduring friendship, of political and cultural divisions and the weight of expectation and history upon the shoulders of those growing up through the period.

Long since compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, this is the novel that bears closest resemblance; Savage is the Gatsby of his generation, Patrick Keane is McInerney’s Nick Carroway.

Last of the Savages

Model Behaviour

Returning to New York this is essentially Bright Lights, Big City for the 90′s.

Inhabiting the same world as McInerney’s debut novel, albeit a decade on, we are again afforded access to the fashionable side of Manhattan life through the experiences of Conner McKnight, reporter for CiaoBella magazine.

If the central plot shows a passing resemblance to Bright Lights…(aspiring writer despairing over the split with his model partner) the novel itself is anything but a recreation and more than stands on its own merit.

This is arguably McInerney at his satirical best, beautifully skewering the foibles of an eccentric landscape whilst retaining a likeability and sense of pathos to the central characters. With some wonderful set-pieces among the bold and beautiful of New York culture and some Wodehouse like wit in the dialogue this is a wonderfully funny and prophetic look at a culture obsessed on appearance and celebrity.

Model Behaviour

The Good Life

Not to be confused with the classic BBC sitcom this is a thoughtful, well-crafted novel that deals with New York life in the aftermath of 9/11.

The story revisits the central characters from Brightness Falls which, a treat for those so invested in those lives. Their evolution through the intervening years is, for the most part, believable if at times uncomfortable and there is a sense of pleasure in reading about them after all these years – a re-acquaintance with old friends as it were.

The absence of a key character is, however, as keenly felt by the reader as it is the characters left behind, and the novel is the weaker for it.

However, this is not a sequel as such and readers new to McInerney will just as easily pick this up and run with the story in its own right. Given the subject matter and the rawness still felt by those involved it’s a fine novel from a master of the craft, portraying a city and a culture deeply wounded and the struggles we have as we grow older to accept that things can never be as they once were.

The Good Life
THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT OF THE WINDOW & DISAPPEARED – A REVIEW

THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT OF THE WINDOW & DISAPPEARED – A REVIEW

100 year old man who climbed out of a window and disappearedWe meet Allan Karlson on the morning of his 100th birthday, sitting alone in his room at the nursing home within which he resides in the Swedish town of Malmkoping. A party is being planned to celebrate his reaching a triple digit age, with local dignitaries and press coming along. Allan, however, doesn’t want to attend.

So, being a man of fairly fine fettle considering his advancing years, he decides to make a break for it, climbing, as the title of the story informs us, out of the window and disappearing.

And so begins a remarkable, funny and frequently absurd adventure.

Author Jonas Jonasson moves the story on with a feverish pace and with the lightness of touch that perfectly matches the ‘Que Sera’ mentality of the protagonist. Weaving between Allan’s shuffling, farce-laden road trip as he encounters all manner of eccentric and shady characters we are also taken on a journey back through Karlson’s long, and astonishingly eventful life.

With more than an hint of similarity to Forrest Gump we find that Karlson, a man of simple means and desires, has played a significant role in shaping many of the major events of the twentieth century. A man who remained vociferously neutral on all matters of politics and religion we find Karlson inadvertently mixing with the great and the decidedly not so great at some of their more pivotal moments. From Franco to Chairman Mao, Stalin to Nixon, Karlson manages to meander his way through history with a weary sigh and a constant craving for good vodka.

While the parallel to Gump is clear, where the story differs is in its telling; Jonasson always managing to steer well clear of anything resembling sentimentality, drawing the reader at all times towards the absurd and comic with some glorious set-pieces, a motley crew of characters that wouldn’t be out of place among the pages of a Douglas Adams novel.

If you thought Swedish fiction was all about grisly murder, long dark neurotic nights and troubled cops, then this delightful romp through modern history will redress the balance.

The Gruffalo and Other Stories

The Gruffalo and Other Stories

A MOUSE TOOK A STROLL IN THE DEEP DARK WOODS….

The Gruffalo

And so begins the Gruffalo, the tale of a small mouse, living on his quick wits and guile to avoid being the main course for some of the more predatory elements of the forest, not least the mysterious Gruffalo himself, with his ‘terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.

The most famous creation of Children’s author Julia Donaldson The Gruffalo is now established as one of the classic bedtime stories for parents to read to their young children.

With their clever, fluid rhymes and witty wordplay Julia Donaldson’s series of books for young children (roughly suited to the 3-7 year old age group) were the source of many hours of entertainment as my own kids were growing, moving inexorably away from the baby / toddler years. Each book is a beautifully crafted work, delightfully illustrated by Axel Scheffler, rich in colourful characters and comical scenery to match perfectly the whimsical, imaginative stories that flow from Donaldson’s mind and straight into the heart and soul of kids and parents alike.

The tone for every story is set through the delightfully expressive titles: The Gruffalo, The Snail & The Whale, Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book and more. Reading them aloud is a joy; the stories are full of playful rhymes and a repetitive beat that at times feels almost song-like and, after numerous readings, allows for great interaction as your kids read along, waiting for the punchline like a favourite comedy sketch.Many a night my wife and I would settle on the bed with our boys, reading the stories as they grinned and bobbed, waiting to jump in or join in on the pay-off rhyme. Read Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book with a child and you’ll find it hard to stop them. It’s part of the fun and a compliment to the author.

Donaldson’s style encourages children to engage with the stories, to interact with the words and the pictures on the page. If you’re looking for a starting point to introduce kids to the joys of reading and the pleasures of a good book then these stories are the perfect foil. The enthusiasm Donaldson clearly has for writing them shines through every syllable and you simply cannot fail to fall in love them.

I’d heartily recommend every book in this timeless collection, however, the stories below represent those that ranked highest from that most discerning of reviewer: The Young Child.




ROOM ON THE BROOM

A witch takes a ride on her broomstick, picking up some colourful characters along the way. Terrific wordplay and a lovely story of dragons and spells and frogs who like to shower.

THE GRUFFALO

A mouse takes a stroll into the deep dark wood. Along the way he meets a hungry fox, owl and snake, all eager to make a meal of the little rodent. But his quick wits and guile enable him to throw them off the scent with his tales of the make-believe monster the Gruffalo. That is, of course, until he discovers the Gruffalo may not be as make-believe as he thought. The most famous of the Donaldson-Scheffler creations this is a timeless classic and a must read for all young families.

THE GRUFFALO’S CHILD

A lovely sequel to The Gruffalo this is the tale of the iconic creatures child who sets off on an adventure in search of the mythical mouse who so outwitted her father. A beautiful, funny and clever follow up story.

CHARLIE COOK’S FAVOURITE BOOK

A delightful, clever story with some terrific rhymes to make the kids giggle and bring a knowing smile to the face of mum and dad. Charlie Cook dips into his favourite book that takes him into another book then another before coming full circle to his own comfy armchair. Fantastic illustrations, wonderful wordplay and the right amount of silliness to keep everyone returning for repeat readings. A real favourite.

THE SNAIL & THE WHALE

A truly lovely tale of the snail and the whale, with trademark rhymes that bring a mind to Dr Seuss. In search of a life of adventure away from the rock upon which it lives, the small sea snail hitches a ride upon the back of a friendly humpback whale and together they travel the world. A real heartwarmer this one.

A SQUASH & A SQUEEZE

A little old lady complains that her house is too small and recruits the help of a wise old man. The wise old man instructs her to invite all the animals on the farm to the house in a bizarre and truly funny fable. This was Donaldson-Scheffler’s first illustrated book and an extremely high benchmark for all others to follow. You’ll be full of jigs and fiddle-dee-dees after reading this.

ANY MORE??

Explore the wonderful world of Julia Donaldson further – your kids’ll love it and, let’s be honest, you’ll probably love it even more.




ROOM ON THE BROOM

A witch takes a ride on her broomstick, picking up some colourful characters along the way. Terrific wordplay and a lovely story of dragons and spells and frogs who like to shower.

 

THE GRUFFALO

A mouse takes a stroll into the deep dark wood. Along the way he meets a hungry fox, owl and snake, all eager to make a meal of the little rodent. But his quick wits and guile enable him to throw them off the scent with his tales of the make-believe monster the Gruffalo. That is, of course, until he discovers the Gruffalo may not be as make-believe as he thought. The most famous of the Donaldson-Scheffler creations this is a timeless classic and a must read for all young families.

THE GRUFFALO’S CHILD

A lovely sequel to The Gruffalo this is the tale of the iconic creatures child who sets off on an adventure in search of the mythical mouse who so outwitted her father. A beautiful, funny and clever follow up story.

CHARLIE COOK’S FAVOURITE BOOK

A delightful, clever story with some terrific rhymes to make the kids giggle and bring a knowing smile to the face of mum and dad. Charlie Cook dips into his favourite book that takes him into another book then another before coming full circle to his own comfy armchair. Fantastic illustrations, wonderful wordplay and the right amount of silliness to keep everyone returning for repeat readings. A real favourite.

THE SNAIL & THE WHALE

A truly lovely tale of the snail and the whale, with trademark rhymes that bring a mind to Dr Seuss. In search of a life of adventure away from the rock upon which it lives, the small sea snail hitches a ride upon the back of a friendly humpback whale and together they travel the world. A real heartwarmer this one.

A SQUASH & A SQUEEZE

A little old lady complains that her house is too small and recruits the help of a wise old man. The wise old man instructs her to invite all the animals on the farm to the house in a bizarre and truly funny fable. This was Donaldson-Scheffler’s first illustrated book and an extremely high benchmark for all others to follow. You’ll be full of jigs and fiddle-dee-dees after reading this.

ANY MORE??

Explore the wonderful world of Julia Donaldson further – your kids’ll love it and, let’s be honest, you’ll probably love it even more.

Review of Moon Palace by Paul Auster

Review of Moon Palace by Paul Auster

Moon Palace by Paul AusterThere is something in the way in which Paul Auster writes that stays with me for days afterwards. It lingers in thought, a nagging urge to better understand the prose; that no matter how deeply you feel about the story, there’s another layer unfound, asking to be revealed.

And so it has been with Moon Palace, an older Auster novel (from 1989) which only now have I finally managed to consume.

Set as the sixties were giving way to the seventies, in the shadow of men landing on the moon and the sense of a rapidly changing world, the novel is a first person narrative told through the words and reflections of the young Marco Stanley Fogg, a delightful composite of a name. On the one hand old-school, faintly comic Dickensian while at the same time offering whispers of exploration and adventures to come.

And it is indeed, a novel of melancholic exploration, both physical and psychological. A story which takes us from the urban sprawl of a modern Manhattan to the visions of older America, the vastness of the West and the myths that lie at the heart of the country, the continent and the people, indigenous or otherwise, who have called it their home. An existential journey through the nation’s expansive evolution, it’s no coincidence that Fogg’s story ultimately heads west.

Knitted together by a series of fairly unlikely coincidences the story uses a fiendishly clever picaresque style, allowing us to learn tales of the main protagonists over the course of three generations. And, in so doing we find ourselves in the midst of a story that seems to repeat on itself, the notion that history is repetitive. Fogg’s early descent into homelessness and despair, living off trash can scraps and taking to shelter in a cave in the heart of Central Park is later mirrored by the tale of his benefactor Effing, who relays to Fogg his own cave-dwelling travails as a young artist lost in the Utah desert, many years before.

Auster clearly has a lot to say across a gamut of themes within the novel; each episode a contemplation on history and family, but also on the nature of art and the act and indeed importance of story-telling within our culture. There is Fogg’s grief-induced quest to read every book inherited from his uncle as he slowly extracts himself from society; the meta-fiction re-telling of Sol Barber’s poorly written fantasy western and the book length, pre-death obituary of Effing. With each story comes a new revelation, ever more bizarre but no less compelling, bringing the protagonists’ lives closer together.

And then there is Kitty Wu. The contrast to the old world order of Effing’s art and Barber’s academia. The love of Fogg’s life (within these pages, at least) Wu is at once a representation of heroism and tragedy. Of Chinese origin, she shares a backstory similar to Fogg’s. Lost and trying to find her way in a new landscape she frequently displays the strength that Fogg seems to lack; becoming his salvation and, ultimately a victim of his weakness and a representation of historic mistakes made by men in the name of forging new frontiers.

Ultimately, Moon Palace is a reflection of human existence and the way in which we stubbornly refuse to learn from our mistakes. As Douglas Adams once said: “We live and learn. At least, we live.” So this is the fundamental truth at which Auster appears to be suggesting, symbolised throughout by reference to the moon. On one level we have a book about exploration in the shadow of the moon landings while at the same time the symbol of a history of blunders, the cyclical nature of the moon mirroring that of our protagonist’s lives.

What’s the Meaning of Liff?

What’s the Meaning of Liff?

And no, it’s not 42.

Did you ever feel that the world needed a word for that bead of sweat which runs down your bottom cleavage?

Neither did I.

Luckily for the rest of us, two men did feel that particular need. Indeed, they felt the need to appoint words to a whole raft of life’s quirks which, beforehand, were left to fend for themselves.

And so was born The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff – dictionaries, as they describe themselves, of things for which there aren’t any words for yet.

The creators of Liff are, or rather were, the late, great Douglas Adams and the thankfully still quite present but no less great John Lloyd. Adams, quite the favourite round my way, is the comedic genius behind The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Dirk Gently Detective Series while Lloyd is responsible for, among other things, Not the 9 O’clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image & QI and is in no way whatsoever, a former tennis player and husband of Chris Evert.

So what’s the concept again?

Well, according to one of the many prefaces attached to the varying editions of the dictionary, The Meaning of Liff can be described as thus:

In life there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no word exists. On the other hand the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing around on signposts pointing at places.The Deeper Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd & Douglas Adams

In short, Lloyd and Adams have taken place names and afforded them new meanings.

Yes it’s an odd concept, I’ll give you that.

But trust me, once you delve into the book you’ll get it, you’ll read on, you’ll titter and you may even begin to adopt one or two into your actual everyday vocabulary.

It is, as is the case for most things for which these gents are responsible, very funny indeed.

A sample of ‘new’ words

Disclaimer: these books came out over 20 years ago so the use of ‘new’ is somewhat subjective. Also, the words themselves are not actually new at all, as they have been used as place names around the world for many a decade, but they are ‘new’ in the sense that they have been attributed ‘new’ meanings – albeit quite some time ago now. I hope that clears things up.

Abilene (adj)

Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

Beppu (n)

The triumphant slamming shut of a book after reading the final page.

Budle (vb)

To fart underwater.

Canudos (n)

The desire of married couples to see their single friends pair off.

Farrancassidy (n)

A long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get someone’s bra off.

Golant (adj)

Blank, sly and faintly embarrassed. Pertaining to the expression seen on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.

Keele

The horrible smell caused by washing ashtrays

Lampung (n)

The daze which follows turning the light on in the middle of the night.

Pidney (n)

The amount of coffee left at the bottom of a jar which doesn’t amount to a spoonful

Poona (n)

Satisfied grunting noise made when sitting back after a good meal.

Rhymney (n)

That part of a song lyric which you suddenly realise you’ve been mishearing for years.

Ripon (vb)

(Of literary critics) To include all the best jokes from the book in the review to make it look as if the critic thought of them. (cough, splutter, what?)

Thrupp (vb)

To hold a ruler on one end of a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrddrr.

[descriptions taken from ‘The Deeper Meaning of Liff’ by Douglas Adams & John Lloyd, 1990]
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