An eloquently written misery memoir, long but loaded with nuggets of the author’s wit and bite

Closing Time by Joe Queenan

I have enjoyed all the Joe Queenan books I’ve read, particularly The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card.  Queenan is a journalist and author, having written for the New York Times and The Guardian amongst others, where his acerbic wit and eloquent ranting holds no hostages. I’m not a fan of misery memoirs, but given previous exposure to the Queenan wit, I was happy to make an exception to read this one…

Queenan and his sisters grew up in Philadelphia with a violent alcoholic father and an uninterested depressive mother.  Irish-Americans, they grew up in poverty having to live in the ghetto of a housing project for years. Queenan is clearly bitter about his drunkard father who couldn’t hold down a regular job and subjected them to regular beatings. Queenan soon started to become creative about staying out of the house to avoid his Pa – after-school jobs with father surrogates clothier Len and pharmacist Glenn gave more than just a few dollars in his pocket.

In the two years I worked at the apothecary, my father’s downward trajectory continued, as if he was unaware that the bottom he was seeking had already been hit.

My personal diversionary strategy throughout these years was diabolically cunning: I made sure that when my father was on the premises, I was not.

Thinking he had a calling, he also managed to escape for a whole year to the seminary, but that was a mistake. Ironically, his father was well-read and young Joe also enjoyed literature; he soon realised that the best way out of poverty was to work hard at school and get to college, and luckily for us it worked. When Glenn took him to New York for a day-trip, it was love at first sight, and Joe had a stratagem for ultimately getting out of Philadelphia.

Queenan’s trademark wit and bite can be found in this memoir, and there are passages of dazzling description that will keep you reading; but the book is rather long, and the highlights are sprinkled through like little nuggets of gold. He always speaks with candour and is never sentimental, however it is diluted by the sad but repetitive nature of his circumstances. Philadelphia too comes over as a dull city.

It’s obvious by the end of the book that Queenan, who is nearing 60, is coming to terms with his childhood and wanted to get it off his chest. It will lead those who already know his work to understand where his style comes from, others may find this memoir too long despite the lovely writing. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

My Life According to Books I Have Read

I got this fun meme from Kay at The Infinite Shelf.

Using only books you have read this year (2009), cleverly answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!
* Describe Yourself: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
* How do you feel: Cloud Busting
* Describe where you currently live: Loser’s Town
* If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Far North
* Your favorite form of transportation: The Invention of Hugo Cabret
* Your best friend is: The Juggler
* You and your friends are: Remarkable Creatures
* What’s the weather like: Turbulence
* Favorite time of day: Friday Nights
* If your life was a: Tanglewreck
* What is life to you: A Life’s Music
* Your fear: The knife of never letting go
* What is the best advice you have to give: Trust me I’m a junior doctor
* Thought for the Day: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
* How I would like to die: Wishful Drinking
* My soul’s present condition: Something Beginning With
It was fun yet actually quite difficult to do. One thing I’d like to stress though – remember that these are just book titles, and are no reflection on my real life!

Stieg Larsson Book Giveaway!

For my first proper book giveaway on this blog, those nice people at Knopf in the USA gave me a copy of Stieg Larsson’s second novel in the Millennium Trilogy The Girl Who Played With Fire.

I read the part of the trilogy last year and really enjoyed it. I got the UK edition of the second a couple of months ago, but haven’t read it yet – my Mum has though and she thought it was excellent, see her comment here.

The giveaway is the US hardback with those nice rough-cut page edges that they do; a first edition, but third pre-publication printing!

What is nice though, is that they’ve also supplied me with a handful of rather fab temporary tattoos for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The winner will get a few, and so will two others.

Just leave a comment by the end of August 31st. I will send world-wide. The draw will be on September 1st.

A book with mischievious intent, that doesn’t entirely live up to its promise

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

If you look at all the reviews, you’ll see that this monster mash-up of the beloved novel has totally split opinions of those who have read it. I’ll tell you mine after a bit of explanation.

Zombies have been plaguing the English countryside for years. It’s no longer safe to venture out alone; you need to be either armed to the teeth, or have safety in numbers. The Bennets are well equipped to deal with the undead, for Mr Bennet and his daughters have been trained in the deadly arts in China and are warriors all with swords and feet alike, having their own dojo at home to keep their skills honed.

The Zombies and martial arts are all shoe-horned into Austen’s original novel, most of which is left in tact – it’s usually pretty obvious which are the additions and adaptations, although not having read the original for many years, I kept it by me so I could compare and contrast if needed. I am an expert in the BBC’s wonderful P&P series from 1995 though, which enriched this reading immensely – imagining Colin Firth as Darcy slashing and burning the undead…

Sorry, where was I?

The novel starts off really well, it had me chortling loud enough to have to read the first few lines out to my other half:-

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.
“My dear Mr Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is occupied again?”
Mr Bennet replied that he had not and went about his morning business of dagger sharpening and nusket polishing – for attacks by the unmentionables had grown alarmingly frequent in recent weeks.

Even from just this small quote you can see already that it mixes the new and old and rewrites other sentences to fit. Some of the adaptations are witty, and there is the added frisson of a little double-entendre introduced between Lizzie and Darcy. There’s nothing like a little smut to remind you that this mash-up is intended to entertain – some of the other write-ups I’ve read seem to have expected a more serious shock-horror treatment, but the comedy approach was fine by me.

The big problem is, that with one notably sad exception, the zombies are a mere nuisance, seemingly there to prevent travel and explain the high turnover in servants – there are missed opportunities for more zombie mayhem in more elevated circles. It’s mostly a class thing – the rich can afford warrior training and/or servants to do the zombie killing for them, unlike the working class who get devoured with relentless monotony. There is one real highlight though, appended at the end of the novel which, if you decide to read it, you too must save for the end – in which the author’s comedic credentials are exploited to the full. A neat finish, but I can’t tell you more.

So what did I make of it all?
It was a great concept, (with a fantastic cover). It was fun, but not sustained all the way through. Did I enjoy it enough to read the new title from Quirk Books – Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters co-written by Ben H Winters this time – well maybe! (6 .5 out of 10)

Rude Awakenings!

Maybe it’s my current reading (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith), but I’ve been having vivid dreams. The latest of which consisted of a science experiment at school involving woodlice which transmogrified into giant maggots (remember the Pertwee vintage Dr Who with maggots – but not quite so big and scary) which then hatched into psychedelic butterflies. Luckily that one ended up fairly happily – but I can’t explain it at all.

Then this morning I woke up, looked across at the bedroom reading pile and saw someone looking straight at me!

E E K !

Then I realised it was the spine of a new arrival on my bookpile. The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent about the Salem Witch Trials seen through the eyes of a ten year old girl whose mother is accused.

I’m going to have to move it!

She sells sea shells by the sea shore

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

This is the story of two women in the early 1800s – fossil hunters who played an important part in the beginnings of the evolutionary debate.

Elizabeth Philpott and her younger sisters have to move after their brother marries; not being able to afford to live in Brighton, they choose Lyme Regis where the youngest sister Margaret can shine in society there – as, in the novels of Jane Austen, marriage is a high priority for them. Already living in Lyme, young Mary Anning earns a living collecting fossils and selling these curiosities, or ‘curies’ as they are known, to visitors to the town; she has a real feel for the fossils. But when her father dies leaving them in debt, the pressure is on the family to make ends meet.

Elizabeth meets Mary out on the beach, and the two strike up a friendship despite being of different classes and ages, and they collect fossils together. Elizabeth is an educated woman with an interest in natural sciences, and is following new developments in what will become palaeontology, and is really beginning to question to creation myth – surely God can’t have put fossils in the rocks as a test of faith as the local vicar believes – the fossils must be creatures that have become extinct. Over the next few years, interest in fossils increases hugely. After Mary discovers the skeleton of a ‘crocodile’ (actually an ichthyosaurus) more collectors come to Lyme and one in particular, Colonel Birch, takes a big interest in Mary – and she to him leading to a falling out between Mary and Elizabeth who thinks he’s taking her for a ride…

Once again, Chevalier brings history to life – most of the characters within existed. This well-researched novel, coming as it does during the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, is a treat from start to finish. I enjoyed all the explanations of the fossils – as Mary and Elizabeth self-educate on the subject, we benefit from that too. Told mostly in alternating voices between Mary and Elizabeth, it is a gentle tale, but not without its moments of drama. Although it considers all the Austenish concerns of friendship, marriage, manners and social mobility, the main thrust is that of women trying to be accepted in the man’s world. Some of the Regency men may have been dinosaurs, but there were enough enlightened ones to recognise the womens’ contributions and ultimately this story celebrates their success.

I think it’s my favourite of her novels so far. There’s something fascinating about fossils – they’re great in museums, but even better when you find them yourself. I’ve had a go out on the beach at Charmouth near Lyme, resulting in a little treasure box of ammonite and belemnite fragments. By the way, the tongue-twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” is said to be about Mary Anning, and you can see her big ichthyosaur find at the Natural History Museum in London (see below); Elizabeth Philpott’s fossil collection is kept in the University Museum at Oxford.

(Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme, Ichthyosaur photo Niki Odolphie via Wikipedia).

What my cricket-mad brother is reading and listening to …

After my Mum obliged my request to make some remarks on the blog about her recent reading, I asked my brother if he was interested in doing the same some time. Within an hour or two he had supplied me with the paragraphs below – not keen at all!

As you will see, three out of four items are cricket related which reflects his current No 1 passion. The Oval will be Mike’s home for these five days for he’s a member of Surrey cricket club, and never misses a home test match. I do wonder which’ll will win on Saturday afternoon though – I believe Crystal Palace are playing at home. Here’s his report …

Listening

The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle (download) – Includes certain notorious B Sides and a wonderful version of You Need Hands – ideal for easing the stresses of work – especially when played REALLY loud and singing along.

Duckworth Lewis Method – A quirky reflection on all things cricket by the Irish duo of Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) and Thomas Walsh (Pugwash) brought out just in time for the Ashes. Stand Out moment – A whole song about Shane Warne’s first ball in England against Mike (Fatty) Gatting. The line “If it had been a cheese roll it would never have got past me” follows the chorus of “Jiggery pokery, trickery chokery, how did he open me up? Robbery! Muggery! Aussie skull-duggery! Out for a buggering duck.” ..and that sums it up!

Reading

You Are the Umpire: An Illustrated Guide to the Laws of Cricket. Following in the footsteps of the classic You Are the Ref, it makes a wonderful toilet companion of challenges on the laws of cricket and light information about some of the world’s cricketing greats. A meaty and useful volume.

Ashes to Ashes [35 Years of Humiliation (and about 20 minutes of ecstasy) watching England v Australia] by Marcus Berkmann. Berkmann has previously written a couple of light-hearted books about amateur Cricket. This book is a must for 40-something fans as it covers their lifetime from Boycott, Edrich and Luckhurst through Packer, Brearley and Botham, and the 3Gs (Gower, Gooch and Gatting) to Vaughan, Pietersen and Flintoff. The book gives an account of every Ashes test during the period, interspersed by comments of Berkmann’s friends. Not too heavy and a good companion to the series.

Thanks Mike.
Fingers crossed for England!

Good Clean Spy Fun – with a spot of murder, and a good dose of drugs …

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

When I saw that Penguin were reissuing five of Ambler’s novels in their Modern Classics series, the choice of which to read first was easy – I picked The Mask of Dimitrios. Apart from having been published during the same year as Chandler’s The Big Sleep, this novel is famous for being the one that Ian Fleming nodded to, having Bond read it on a plane to Istanbul in From Russia With Love:

Bond unfastened his seat-belt and lit a cigarette. He reached for the slim, expensive-looking attaché case on the floor beside him and took out The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler and put the case, which was very heavy in spite of its size, on the seat beside him.

The Mask of Dimitrios is a classic spy story. A mild-mannered crime novelist, Charles Latimer, is travelling in Europe and makes the acquaintance of Colonel Haki – an inspector in the Turkish secret police. Haki has read Latimer’s novels and has an idea for a plot for him, however Latimer finds real life to be much more fascinating.

Out of professional interest, he goes with the Colonel to the morgue to see the body of a notorious criminal, who had ended up stabbed to death. Dimitrios was wanted all over Europe in connection with murders, assassination attempts and more, but had been too clever to be caught. Latimer’s interest is piqued and he feels that to do some real detection work into Dimitrios would be helpful to his novels. Haki tells him what he knows, and off goes Latimer, not knowing that he will become obsessed in his quest or that he is, as you might expect for an amateur detective, sailing into dangerous waters.

His journey takes him across Europe, making contacts and filling in the jigsaw puzzle piece by piece. In Sofia, he meets the translator Marukakis, who takes him to a club where the Madame knew Dimitrios:

She possessed that odd blousy quality that is independent of good clothes and well-dressed hair and skilful maquillage. Her figure was full but good and she held herself well: her dress was probably expensive, her thick, dark hair looked as if it had spent the past two hours in the hands of a hairdresser. Yet she remained, unmistakably and irrevocably, a slattern.

But others are also interested in Dimitrios. On one occasion after having been confronted by an intruder with a Luger, Latimer rues that he didn’t use force against the man; “That,” he reflected, “was the worst of the academic mind. It always overlooked the possibilities of violence until violence was no longer useful.” This sums up Latimer neatly – in the best tradition of the gentleman amateur sleuth.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It has much in common with those who followed – although Fleming, Robert Ludlum, and John Le Carré each take the espionage novel in differing directions. I liked the multiple locations around Europe; travelling between them is made easy by train. There is some tension generated by the political undercurrents and the general situation in the eastern Mediterranean countries – although not much is made of them here – WWII is yet to happen. The cast of shady supporting characters introduces much complexity, but sometimes, the long episodes when Dimitrios’ back-story is recounted slow the pace. Latimer however proves an amiable companion in this novel that is not quite a full-blooded thriller. As a lover of spy novels, I’ll be back to Ambler.

What my Mum is reading

Being between books to review at the moment, I asked my 70-something Mum what she’s reading. She probably reads more books than I do, and every time I see her she borrows a bagful or two. She always returns them with sticky notes on telling me what she thought. She reads widely, and dare I say it, has similar tastes to me, although I can’t see her reading P&P&Z – see post below!

So over to Mum:

  • The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. I enjoyed this and found it quite absorbing. Reminiscent of the Kennedys, Clinton and other womanising US Senators etc.
  • The Minds Eye and The Return by Hakun Nesser. Swedish detective sagas and quite impressive. Van Veeteren is funnier, more outrageous and even grumpier than Wallander whom I like very much. The court scene in The Minds Eye is particularly good.
  • The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I have now read the first two and they are growing on me . The first one, Roseanna, seemed rather dry and factual in the beginning but improved. The second, The Man Who Went up in Smoke, set partly in Budapest, was a good read. Of course they are set in the sixties. Much earlier than the other Swedish detective novels I have read.
  • So far my favourite of all the Nordic detective books are the Stieg Larsson ones. Sadly he died so there are no more after the final one in the trilogy which is coming soon.

Thanks Mum!