‘I like a fresh bowl.’

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

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“The extraordinary happens every day”

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Having wept like a baby during reading Ness’s last crossover novel, A Monster Calls (my review here) – a story about a young boy coming to terms with love, death and grief, and incorporating magical elements and fables, The Crane Wife – his first full adult novel seems a natural progression.

crane wifeThe Crane Wife is the story of George, a good man who inspires loyalty in those around him, but needs direction in his mid-life. One night he wakes to find an injured white crane in his garden. He breaks the arrow through its wing, rescuing it, and it flies away.

Amanda, George’s daughter is also struggling with life at the moment – she’s angry with everything and everyone, especially her boss Rachel – the only exceptions are her father and her young son JP.

George runs a print shop, assisted by Mehmet an out of work actor who is pretty useless but a good friend. George tends to leave the front of the shop to Mehmet so he can hide away in the back room where he makes pictures with cuttings from old books.

To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dea, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to e-books because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer fies were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book?

When the mysterious Kumiko, an artist, appears at his print shop dressed in white, they start dating. She appears to be the answer to all that is missing in his life. What’s more, his paper cutting complements her intricate collages made from feathers. Put together onto one tile, their art attracts attention – and buyers.

George has never been happier, yet the arrival of Kumiko on the scene does complicate life for all around him.  She is an enigma, George knows nothing about her, he just accepts her for what she is…

Interwoven into the contemporary story is that of an old Japanese folk tale re-told by Ness, about an unlikely love story between a crane and a volcano. This parallel narrative worked well, Ness having found an entirely natural way to work it into the main story through Kumiko’s art; she is recreating the story in her tiles, now with added cuttings from George worked into them.

 ‘… A story needs to be told. A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘
‘And explain it-‘
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flowers. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’

I love stories in which authors make magic a natural extension of life. I thought that Ness achieved this here with ease, weaving in the Japanese folk tale with the extraordinary real events.

He also made George and Amanda easy to love. Amanda in particular, is one those characters you can easily empathise with – we’ve all been there at different times in our lives. Her pent-up anger at her lot, keeps spilling over and alienating those around her – her husband left her, she has few if any friends, and a very sparky relationship with her work colleagues, it’s a good thing she has George and JP. George meanwhile is so good, he needs his edges rubbing off.  Kumiko is harder to fathom, but she is the cypher through whom the others will work out their problems.

Once again, Ness tugged at my heart-strings and although there are some light-hearted moments, I read large parts of the novel with a tear in my eye, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous.  (9/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, pub April 2013, Canongate hardback or trade paperback, 305 pages.

Extra/Ordinary Stuff!

1000 Extra/ordinary Objects by Taschen

I have long admired German publisher Taschen’s affordable art and design books – I have quite a few in my library on favourite artists (Hopper, various Pop Artists, etc).

1000 objects

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, they produced a series of books, and 1000 Extra/Ordinary objects (note the slash) is one of them.  I found this in one of my local charity shops, and snapped it up.

It simply features 1000 objects clearly photographed against a white background, with a short descriptive text for each in English and German. But what a collection of objects!

They are divided into thematic chapters:  Food, Fashion, Animals, Body, Soul, and Leisure.  A short foreword by Peter Gabriel discusses our relationship with our stuff…

People like to surround themselves with objects – it’s part of our nature. It may be an anal instinct, but we like our stuff.
People are surrounded by their objects, whether they are useful, decorative, beautiful, ugly, common or rare, we can’t help but leave clues everywhere as to our identity. Clues about our culture, national identity, political ideology, religious affiliation and sexual inclinations, our objects reflect who we really are and who we want to be. …
We have made pictures of our ancestors from the things they have left behind. So it will be for the archaeologists of the future – by our objects you will know us.

I’ve picked a very small selection of objects to share with you below. The majority are even more interesting than these, but would be difficult to show here in isolation for all sorts of non-PC reasons…

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Food: (left) 3.7 million cans of this were sold in 1997 – the shapes include dolls, bows, necklaces, high-heels. There are all sorts of brain and designer foods in this section too.

Fashion: (right) A South African carry case for your AK-47, only available in black. Also featuring a variety of boots, pubic wigs, bottom enhancing pads etc. Very few conventional clothes!

Animals: (left)  US La Pooch perfume from 1987 was available in his (spicy) and her (musky) fragrances for your dog.

Body: (right) you can buy aerosols containing pure oxygen.  NB: Most of the objects in this section are sex-toys or body enhancements!  I did learn why condoms are called ‘French letters’ though (they were illegal in England at one time, and were sent inside letters from France – simples!)

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Soul: (left) a Star of David slinky in national colours from the USA.  Also many plastic icons, prayer aids, and the cilicio (as worn by Silas in The Da Vinci Code, a device to make you feel uncomfortable).

Leisure: (right)  Now the war is over, you can buy engraved bullet cases in Sarajevo.  Also a Polish Lego model of a concentration camp, Philippino paper chains used as room separators made from ciggie packets.

All of human life is here – absurd, funny, fascinating – but nasty, gruesome and thought-provoking too.  None of these items are ordinary – those future archaeologists will have a field-day!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
1000 Extraordinary Objects, Taschen (2000), Colors (2005). Currently o/p.

A souvenir of the Cultural Olympics

Alongside the sporting Olympics this summer was a Cultural Olympiad – with all kinds of arty events all over the country which included Nowhereisland – which was an art installation of a small island – dragged down by tug from Svalbard to the South West of England arriving in Weymouth for the sailing competitions.

During its travel in international waters it took the opportunity to become a new nation, and opened up an roving embassy where visitors could sign up to become citizens!

As I wasn’t going to get to see it,  I signed up online for a bit of fun.

At the beginning of September Nowhereisland was dismantled, and distributed to those of its 23,000 or so  citizens who wanted to own some of the island – for  free, (well just the P&P).  Wny not I thought …

My chunk arrived today and I am delighted with my unique Olympic souvenir. I love the ‘Now here is land’. Just fab!

Saatchi on Saatchi

My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic: Everything You Need to Know About Art, Ads, Life, God and Other Mysteries and Weren’t Afraid to Ask by Charles Saatchi

The title of this little volume may be a bit of a mouthful, but former ad-man, now the foremost UK collector and exhibitor of modern art, Saatchi is a man unafraid of frankness. This book from art publishers, Phaidon, consists of a whole lot of questions which were put to him by critics, journalists and members of the public. His answers are very candid and direct.

He has two loves in his life – modern art and Nigella (Lawson, the cookery writer); indeed most of the questions are about one or the other couched in many different ways. His answers are wholly consistent, fascinating, and I was really entertained by them too.

To give you a flavour – here is a small selection of the many Q&A …

Q: How do you choose what to buy? Is it about what you like, or will you buy things you don’t like as an investment?

A: The more you like art, the more art you like. So I find it easy to buy lots of it, and seeing art as an investment would take away all the fun.

Q: As a general rule, are art critics all failed artists, and dismissed as such?

A: In the UK we have so many newspapers carrying lengthy art reviews that most shows find themselves getting a mixed bag of responses, and no one critic matters that much, whatever their credentials. My favourite, Brian Sewell, has never written a favourable word about any show I’ve done in 20 years, but dismisses them with such grandeur and style, it’s almost flattering to be duffed up by him. The days when critics could create an art movement by declaring the birth of ‘Abstract Expressionism’, Clement-Greenberg-style, are firmly over. By the way, there is no such thing as a failed artist.

Q: What’s Nigella’s cooking really like?

A: I’m sure it’s fantastic, but a bit wasted on me. I like toast with Dairylea, followed by Weetabix for supper. It drives her to distraction, frankly, particularly as she gets the blame for my new fat look. But the children love her cooking, and our friends seem to look forward to it.

Q: Did For the Love of God, Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, symbolise the emptiness of modern art – more about money than message?

A: My dear, the money is the message.

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic by Charles Saatchi, Pub 2009, Phaidon books, 176 pages.

Reading on the train

On the rare occasions when I go somewhere by train, the minute we set off, I whip out my book and read. Cars, buses, coaches, small boats are a no-no for reading for me – instant headache, but trains and planes are fine.

Edward Hopper is one of my favourite artists.  I love the way he does white light, and I particularly love the stories in his paintings, although some of his women tend to have over-strong features. I stumbled across the first of these two paintings in A Booklover’s Companion from Folio books, and thought I’d share it with you – then I remembered another Hopper painting of a woman reading on a train – so you have two to contemplate below…

The 1965 Hopper painting, Chair Car, sold for a record-breaking $14 million at Christie’s to a private buyer in 2005. It’s a strange-looking train car – so tall! The statuesque woman is totally engrossed in what she’s reading, her position doesn’t look comfortable. Has she turned away from the windows deliberately to avoid the distraction of the landscape passing by, to get better light on the page, or just not to get the sun in her eyes? Do you think she knows the guy on the other side is looking at her? So many questions!

The 1938 painting Compartment C Car is, by contrast, a scene that raises fewer questions, the reader seems relaxed, but is why a young woman travelling alone at night on a (tall) train? Interestingly, this painting is fairly small at 20 x 18 inches, a size which suits the subject.

I remember seeing my first Hopper at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and was smitten.  On my next visit to the USA we went to MOMO in NYC, and there was the iconic Gas (1940), which you can buy as a giant print in IKEA!  In reality it’s another small painting, but I love its welcoming sinisterness. This was followed by another US vacation – Chicago this time and his most famous work in the Art Institute – Nighthawks – a must for fans of Tom Waits.

Sadly, there are no Hopper works on public display in British galleries, but I was lucky enough to go to the 2004 exhibition at the Tate Modern which was amazing, and only cemented him in my mind as perhaps my favourite artist.

Hope you enjoyed this little arty diversion. Are you a Hopper fan?                    I’d love to hear what you think about the interior life of these paintings?

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Hopper (Basic Art Album) by Rolf G Renner, from the art publisher Taschen, provides a great introduction if you’re interested in exploring more about this artist.

The life artistic …

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

I do enjoy quirky novels. I also enjoy stories about dysfunctional families. The Family Fang is both, and just let me tell you that despite the title suggesting blood and bites in suburbia, c.f. The Radleys by Matt Haig, there are no vampires in sight. Indeed it is much closer to the crazy academics of the Casper family in Joe Meno’s novel The Great Maybe  and the films of Wes Anderson like The Royal Tenenbaums(all of which I hugely enjoyed by the way).

Camille and Caleb Fang are renowned performance artists. They specialise in staging events at shopping malls at which the public get drawn into their meticulous planning.  Things get a bit quiet when their two children are born, but as soon as Annie and Buster are old enough, they become part of the act, known to all as Child A and Child B.

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief. “You make a mess and then you walk away from it,” their daughter, Annie, told them. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey,” Mrs. Fang said as she handed detailed breakdowns of the event to each member of the family. “But there’s a simplicity in what we do as well,” Mr. Fang said. “Yes, there is that, too,” his wife replied. Annie and her younger brother, Buster, said nothing. They were driving to Huntsville, two hours away, because they did not want to be recognized. Anonymity was a key element of the performances; it allowed them to set up the scenes without interruption from people who would be expecting mayhem.

Naturally, having grown up being used in the name of art, Annie and Buster become seriously f**ked up adults.  They are both initially successful in their chosen career paths; Annie acting in Hollywood, Buster as a budding novelist and journalist. Life catches up with them however, and they both have crises, returning home to lick their wounds and regroup, only to discover out that their parents have had crises of their own (or is it art?), and that they must not only find their own ways back, but sort their parents out too.

The stories of the adult Annie and Buster alternate with episodes detailing the performance art events they were part of in their youth. Caleb and Camille’s performance art is excruciatingly awful; engineering and manipulating situations that involve not just them and their kids, but aim to get reactions and participation from the unwitting observers too.  Do you remember the scene in the Michael Douglas film Falling Down where he wants a fast food breakfast a few minutes after they stop serving them, but without the gun… that’s the sort of thing they do, and it usually ends up with them being led away by the police who can usually be persuaded to let them go once it is explained that they are the famous Fangs and that it was ‘art’.  You have to laugh, but it’s not comfortable.

Camille and Caleb are like big children; Annie and Buster are more like parents to them than the right way around. This role reversal, and the parents’ refusal to live life normally was endlessly fascinating.  I kept hoping that, like Homer and Marge in The Simpsons, or the equally dysfunctional Hoover family in Little Miss Sunshine, that they’d all hug, make up and become a proper family again … or did I?

If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to read it yourself, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of this entertaining and bittersweet debut novel.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to read Wilson’s next whenever that comes.  (9/10)

For another view, see what Teresa made of it at Lovely Treez Reads

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My copy was supplied courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
For further exploration:
The Great Maybe by Joe Meno
The Radleys by Matt Haig
The Royal Tenenbaums – DVD written and directed by Wes Anderson
Falling Down – DVD starring Michael Douglas.
Little Miss Sunshine – DVD with Greg Kinnear, Toni Colette, Alan Arkin (brilliant!!!) etc.