A Musical Interlude

Tom Waits – one of music’s best-kept secrets…

You may not know his name, but you’ll know his songs – Rod Stewart’s cover of Downtown Train or Springsteen’s Jersey Girl for instance. You may recall a distinctive looking actor in supporting roles in some of Coppola’s films perhaps. What you may not know is his own voice; despite the fact that it is so much his trademark, he famously sued and won when someone impersonated him in a TV advert soundtrack.

To describe his voice as a bourbon-soaked, gravelly barroom growl would be to do him a disservice as it’s far more than that. It’s another musical instrument, but one latterly from the theatre or circus, not from any conventional orchestra.

He’s also been around for a while … first making albums in the early seventies. Songs on his early albums such as Small Change are populated with hoodlums and drunks, pimps and whores, people down on their luck. The arrangements are piano-based with some lush strings, bar-room blues contrast with jazzy basslines.

Then he moved from Asylum to Island records and changed direction with a ground-breaking trilogy of albums starting with Swordfishtrombones in 1983. On this album, his music becomes at the same time – more theatrical and also more guitar and percussion based. In his band, Marc Ribot is no ordinary guitarist having a more avant-garde style, and the percussion includes a wide array of things to hit apart from drums and cymbals – marimbas in particular. Waits himself uses a harmonium, organ or accordion instead of the piano too to create this new distinctive orchestration. His albums from 92’s Bone Machine take the Kurt Weill influence to extremes, being less accessible and more avant-garde in a fairground sort of style (although always interesting) before a return to his 80s style in 1999’s Mule Variations.

…and my favourite Waits album?

It’s Rain Dogs – the sequel to Swordfishtrombones, released in 1985. There is not a single dud track from the first Singapore and the anticipation of a journey just beginning, right to the end and the world-weary Anywhere I lay my head. As usual we meet a motley groups of Waitsian characters from Uncle Vernon in the percussive Cemetery Polka to Brooklyn girls in the sublimeness of the aforementioned Downtown Train. We meet the guys Walking Spanish – prisoners walking down death row and see the seedy side of life on 9th & Hennepin. My personal favourites are Jockey full of bourbon and the title track, both of which are about booze and carousing, and although they’re not lullabies are strangely soothing musically. Several tracks are boosted by the appearance of Keith Richards too. This character-fuelled album is upbeat and uplifting and totally addictive. Listen to this if you don’t believe me …

He did some concerts in the UK earlier this year – the first for ages. But he only gave 2 performances and both were in Scotland – lucky them. Tickets were over £100, but I read the reviews in the music press and it looked like they were worth every penny.

If you want to explore Tom Waits, Small Change, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations mark melodic and accessible places to start from his early, mid and later career respectively – I love all of them.

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Small Change
Rain Dogs
Mule Variations

Desert Island Books #1

This weekend has been totally hectic and I got virtually no reading done, so instead I’ll tell you about one of my desert island books – a book that’s made a big impression on me, and shaped my reading habits thereafter …

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperback

The first on my list is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx who in those days was billed as E. Annie Proulx – it seems she’s dropped the ‘E’ lately.

Published in 1993, Proulx was in her late 50s before her writing career really took off with this novel and The Shipping News subsequently won the Pullitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. It was filmed in 2001 with rather more mixed success starring Kevin Spacey. But back to the book …

Whereas the English equivalents of novels based in small-town America often seem so claustrophobic they have an unreal quality about them, this is not true of their US counterparts for me. North America is so vast, the novels also have a quality of space about them. Sure, everyone still knows everyone else, but they’re not squashed together like sardines, they have to make an effort to interact.

This is so in The Shipping News, where one of life’s failures, Quoyle, betrayed by his wife, opts to start all over again in faraway windswept Newfoundland. The novel is all about how he starts to fit in with the local community which takes time, as they’re mostly failures of a kind too. The quirky characters are superb, both comic and sympathetic. If you liked the TV series Northern Exposure, you’ll find similarities here, but that’s where it ends, as Annie Proulx’s writing leaps off the page and makes everything seem totally real. The chapters are headed with figures from a 1944 book of knots and quotations from the Mariner’s Dictionary which add to the considerable charm of this book.

I’d not read many contemporary American novels set outside the great metropolises before, and this one fired my interests. I’ve since discovered powerful novels by Daniel Woodrell and in Winter’s Bone set in the Ozark mountains, and The Resurrectionists sent in Michigan by Michael Collins together with the rest of Annie’s of course.

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx,

What makes a good choice for a book group?

I maintain that the best books for book groups are those that provoke discussion – titles that not everyone will like, or genres you don’t usually read for instance. Most important though is not to get stuck in a rut, by reading totally different types of books each month.

watchmenThe book group I belong to is lucky enough to have several blokes in addition to us girls, and we read anything and everything:- from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to Iain Banks’ wonderful The Crow Road, and from a great old classic in Kipling’s Kim to a modern classic in the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Being a good-humoured lot, we often deliberately choose books to wind us up … Arthur and George by Julian Barnes was picked as none of us had previously got on with him, but we couldn’t find enough to disagree about in this title and all thoroughly enjoyed it. A plan to get the guys to read a romantic novel also backfired when they couldn’t believe how sexy the particular one chosen was, (The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella), they liked it rather too much! The aforementioned God Delusion also found us all in agreement, all being pro-Darwin but also overexposed to Dawkins these days. Ah well – you can’t win ’em all as they say.

One book that did give much heated discussion was Boy A byJonathan Trigell, a novel about a child murderer that bears many parallels with the James Bulger case. In common with the rest of our group, I didn’t want to enjoy reading this book due to its subject matter – I didn’t want to admit that I could empathise with someone who was capable of doing such an awful act, but I did – particularly because he was only ten when ‘it’ happened and having to start life afresh when released into a world of which he has no experience requires real courage. Jack does well with the guiding hand of mentor Terry, but the media continually keeps nibbling away at the fact that a (child) child-killer is lose in the community – surely it can’t end happily ever after?

Things are never black and white, just different shades of grey and that’s what got us talking and talking… It was a really thought-provoking book that I’m glad I read.

The next book that we’re discussing is Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, a modern werewolf novel set in LA and written in prose-verse. That’s almost guaranteed to get up someone’s nose – I’ll report back in a fortnight!

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons. Paperback.
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Boy A by Jonathan Trigell
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

In praise of the Literary Quarterly

slightly foxed 19 Slightly Foxed is a four a year magazine billed as ‘The Real Reader’s Quarterly. It is beautifully produced on cream paper with lovely illustrations and usually comprises 15 or 16 articles – all championing books that are often out of print, but always an influential book for the essay’s author.

As usual, No 19 was a fascinating mixure:- I’ve added the quartet of spy novels featuring John Craig by James Munro to my wishlists – contemporaries of Fleming’s Bond novels, but nodding more towards Le Carré; searching them out will be a priority.  There are also articles about I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, one of the best young adult novels ever, and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, I hope my daughter will love that as much as I did.  Richard Ingrams, and Paul Atterbury (off The Antiques Roadshow) also contribute amongst many other fine writers.

slightly foxed 16 Issue No 16 also had more than the usual number of gems – articles on: 1066 & All That; the novels of Georgette Heyer; James Thurber; Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence; the crime novels of Italian author Leonardo Sciascia, and perhaps best of all an essay about Edmund ‘Clerihew’ Bentley – I quote …

The Art of Biography,
Is different to Geography.
Geography is about
But Biography is about Chaps.

Excellent stuff indeed!

Back issues, subscriptions and more are available from their lovely website.

Source: Own copies.

You can judge a book by its cover – can’t you?

believersBrowsing in Mostly Books yesterday I saw the new Zoe Heller novel The Believers. It has one of those lovely tactile dustjackets with gold and light embossing that the pic here can’t even start to do justice to – but you do really want to pick it up and read it, (perhaps taking the dustjacket off to preserve it once you’ve settled in).

I try to resist (and often fail) buying hardbacks, but this one I shall probably make an exception for, as I loved both her previous novels, and some years ago when she wrote a column in the Sunday Times I never missed an episode. All this goes to show that you probably can judge a book by its cover … but only as long as you already know its author!

Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd by Nick Mason

Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd by Nick Mason

inside outNick Mason has been with Pink Floyd right from the beginning – through all the band’s incarnations and troubles. He makes a genial host in his biography of the band, yet he proves too easygoing and unconfrontational to give us much analysis of the internal politics (and problems with Syd) that have periodically torn the relationships between the four/five-some apart. Added to that, Syd apart, the Floyd appear to have been about the only band that didn’t turn up, tune in and drop out in the late 60s and 70s, continuing their studies and gigging hard until it became impossible to maintain both when their musical success started to take off. All this apart, it is a good story and is deftly told for us.

My real exposure to Pink Floyd started off with Dark Side of the Moon – I had the posters on my wall and the stickers on my school binder. Reading this book, it was lovely to imagine them tinkering around to produce all the sound effects, and funny to hear that they rejected Paul McCartney’s recorded comments for the background. The four albums starting with Dark Side of the Moon, running through Wish You Were Here and Animals to The Wall were hugely influential to me, (I discovered the charms of Meddle later). There is a theatricality about these four – from a band determined to create coherent albums and give the audience a good show. Of course by the time of The Wall, the show was everything – I was so jealous of my brother who went to see it at Earls Court. Mason outlines the creative processes behind the albums and the shows as they became dominated by Roger and led to increasingly tense times for all involved.

What does come through is that Mason, although not a flashy drummer was, like Ringo, incredibly important to the music. He was also instrumental in keeping the peace in and out of the studio. Being a non-songwriter, it helps that Mason has another obsession in motorsports, but this is mostly mentioned in passing, letting Pink Floyd rightfully star.

Given the sad passing of Syd and recently Rick, we may never hear their side of the story and how they were forced out, maybe one day the others will tell their sides of the story. The Live8 reunion was a fitting coda to the Pink Floyd story and is added as an afterword in the latest edition. In summary this is an entertaining and light read together with some great photos of the history of one of the greatest rock bands in the world.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd by Nick Mason, Phoenix paperback

Guilty Secrets #1

This is the first in an occasional series where I am going to risk ridicule and tell you which books and authors I really ought to have read but haven’t.

I am enjoying the new BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles immensely and it’s young star Gemma Arterton is just the part with her Pre-Raphaelite tresses. Here comes my first confession – I’ve never read it. In fact I have never read any Thomas Hardy.

I was talking about this to a friend yesterday and she recommended her favourite which is also one of his darkest – Jude the Obscure. I’m determined to make amends by reading some Hardy so should I take a deep breath and start with Jude, or can you suggest another to me …

A Trio of Five Star Books

As this is a new blog and we’re still getting to know each other, I thought I’d introduce you to a trio of the 5 star books I’ve read this year, so you can see some of the books I’ve really enjoyed reading. Fuller reviews can be found on my Librarything site – there’s a link to your right.

Firstly, The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills – this was a satire on crack-pot government job schemes, trade unions and workplace practices and very, very chucklesome indeed.

Next We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – the creepy story of a big house where the Blackwood sisters live on with their old uncle after the rest of their family were poisoned one night … an intense read and superbly crafted chiller of a tale.

And finally this time, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Recently filmed, this is a frothy Cinderella story of a forty year old governess who’s never been kissed and gets swept along in swirl of excitement when she mistakenly gets sent for a maid’s job for a night-club singer. Total brilliant fun, and a huge hit for Persephone Books who resurrect wonderful yet forgotten twentieth century novels.

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics) by Winifred Watson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics) by Shirley Jackson
The Scheme for Full Employment: reissued by Magnus Mills

Rebus #2

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin’s second Rebus novel is not quite as good as the first, but is still very enjoyable. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, this time the doughty inspector investigates the death of a junkie with possible satanic overtones, while his super involves him in a anti-drug taskforce set up by a group of high-flying Edinburgh businessmen. No prizes for guessing which is sleazier, or that the two may be linked!

Rebus the character is, as the author says in his prologue, not yet fully developed and I found it hard to picture him. Especially difficult since I managed to miss the TV adaptations with Ken Stott as Rebus – I only saw the previous ones with John Hannah who seemed too small and young as the Inspector. I have high hopes of number three though …

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hide And Seek by Ian Rankin, Orion paperback.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror (Penguin Classics)by Robert Louis Stevenson

Mostly Booklovers – The Abingdon Literary Society

One thing I’m really excited about at the moment, is a new venture linked to our town’s award-winning independent bookshop – Mostly Books. A customer asked Mark & Nicki Thornton, the owners, if they thought starting a Literary Society might be a good idea – the answer was Yes. Mark & Nicki talked to their customers and a group of us have got together to work out the details.
One certain thing at this early stage is that the club will be called ‘Mostly Booklovers’ which is fab (I wish I’d thought of it!). The Society is not a Book Group. The main aims are to bring authors closer to readers by arranging events in Abingdon, and to develop a vibrant local literary scene.
So watch this space …