A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA – as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk, isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.

Jeeves-and-Wooster

Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature, a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through its 334 pages – by comparison, the Wodehouse-inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

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Annabel’s Shelves: A is for …

Arnott, Jake – The Long Firm

Thank you to everyone who suggested authors beginning with ‘A’ for the first read of my Annabel’s Shelves project. Atwood was a very popular suggestion, and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have read four of her novels already so didn’t choose her this time. Initially, I want to concentrate on new to me authors so I can more fully explore my bookshelves. The author that leapt out at me was Jake Arnott who has written half a dozen well-thought of novels – all of which I have, so he fully deserved a go!  I’d bought the first two of his books after spotting signed paperbacks in Waterstones – this after seeing the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of The Long Firm which starred Mark Strong. The TV mini-series was jolly good – would the book match it?

arnottThe Long Firm is set in ’60s London, and Soho is moving towards its peak of sleaze being full of seedy clubs, porn shops, prozzies, rent-boys and low-lifes. The infamous Kray twins may rule in the East End, but Harry Starks is one of the kings of the roost in the West End and Harry is dangerous. We know that from the opening lines:

‘You know the song, don’t you? “There’s no business like show business”?’ Harry gets the Ethel Merman intonation just right as he heats up a poker in the gas burner.

Yes, we open with a torture scene! Harry has a predilection for this style of justice – not for nothing is he known as the ‘Torture Gang Boss’. Cross him and you’re likely to get taught a lesson you won’t forget. Terry survives, and we’re taken back to the day he met Harry, the day he was chosen as Harry’s next live-in boyfriend. Harry doesn’t flaunt it, but is openly homosexual (not ‘gay’ he insists). Having taken a shine to Terry and installed him in his flat, he kits him out:

I was spoiled rotten. I got to know about haute couture. And that wardrobe was an essential part of the way that Harry operated. Being so well dressed was the cutting edge of intimidation. A sort of decorative violence in itself.

Harry owns the Stardust Club in Soho. The walls are covered in photos of him with minor celebrities, showbiz pals, boxers – he idolises Judy Garland. He rakes in protection money and is always on the look-out for opportunities to expand, whilst being careful not to annoy the Krays too much!

It is after Terry has the audacity to walk out on Harry after one his moods (Harry is bipolar) that Terry’s fate is sealed. Fooled into thinking that all was straight between them, Terry is employed by Harry as foreman at his electrical goods warehouse – it appears legit, but it’s all a scam, ‘a long firm’. Rather than be a patsy, Terry does a deal on the side, which is why he ends up tied to a chair …

Terry’s story is the first of five that make up the novel. Five people who have been involved with Harry each tell their tale.

The second segment is told by Lord Thursby, a new peer who is unhappily married, a closet homosexual and on his uppers. He is introduced to Harry by Tom Driberg (a former MP who in real life was an acquaintance of the Krays).

‘Harry,’ he said, ‘let me introduce you to Lord Thursby.’

His joined-up eyebrows raised as one. I could see he was impressed. Probably took me for full-blooded aristocracy instead of just a kicked-upstairs life peer. There’s a strange sort of bond between the lower-class tearaway and the upper-class bounder. A shared hatred of the middle classes I suppose. He shoved out his hard, adorned with chunky rings and a big gold wristwatch.

Thursby lets himself get flattered into being a consultant on a scheme to build a new town in Nigeria – and naturally it all goes pear-shaped. Along the way, we learn all about demurrage – the cost associated with storing things, and that there are scammers the whole world over. Thursby’s segment is told as diary entries and is blackly comic in tone.

Jack the Hat, a speed-addicted drug-dealer and Ruby Ryder, tart with a heart and wannabe actress, take on the third and fourth parts of the story by which time the character of the West End is beginning to change with the arrival of LSD and hippies, the old-style gangster is not so fashionable any more. Loyalties change and one other constant of this story – Mooney, the bent vice copper becomes a real problem. When other mobsters have to turn Queens Evidence, Harry is soon implicated and ends up in jail. The last section is told by Lenny – a sociology professor who meets Harry in jail where Harry is getting all the education he can to keep his grey matter functioning at the highest level.

Each of the five tales has its own style and each of the five narrators has a clear voice making their experience of dealing with Harry a distinct and personal story – yet the portrait of him is remarkably consistent throughout. Each will see his different moods – mercurial, philanthropic, violent, loving, romantic, thinking, manic and depressed, and ever the boss to be crossed at your peril. Arnott gets the language of each narrator just right – even down to Jack the Hat always getting his grammar wrong saying ‘should of’ not should have!

It is a very violent world, full of sex, drugs … and Judy Garland, naturally Harry adores her. Real characters from the 1960s flit through the novel, other characters are fictional homages to figures such as Kenneth Williams. Together with all the period references, the 1960s is brought to life with tremendous seedy detail. This novel has it all – and I loved it. I’m glad to have read Arnott – he was the perfect start to my project. (10/10)

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Source: Annabel’s Shelves! To explore further on Amazon UK please click below (affiliate link):
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott. (1999) Sceptre paperback, 352 pages.
The Long Firm [DVD] [2004]

Now help me choose a ‘B’ book…

P1020488 (640x480)

I have two and a third shelves of authors beginning with B. Sorry, you probably can’t read them very clearly in the photo, but apart from Pat Barker, Nicola Barker and Christopher Brookmyre of whom I’ve read several, I’ve not read most of the others there. Suggestions welcome!

Too lurid and too pretentiously cute!

Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell

Lurid and Cute When I read Alex Preston’s review of Adam Thirlwell’s new novel in the Financial Times I instantly wanted to read and review this book for Shiny New Books. As you know I love quirky novels, and I thought this book would be fun, very contemporary and something a bit different.

I wish I’d read some more reviews for it has since become clear that Thirlwell (one of the Granta Best British novelists under 40) is a real ‘Marmite’ author – there is little middle-ground, you’ll love it or loathe it. I quickly grew to loathe this book and gave up at around page 115 during the orgy scene.

It takes place in a great unnamed metropolis, where our unnamed narrator wakes up in bed beside a woman who is not his wife, and she is in a bad state with blood and vomit around her mouth – but still alive. He delivers Romy, with whom he is having an affair to the hospital and goes home to his beloved wife Candy and the house they share with his parents. He has recently given up work, saying he is depressed and needs to find his art – she indulges him. He essentially goes on to laze around taking drugs with his best friend Hiro, bemoaning the fact that he loves Candy so much, while having fun with Romy – and then they all end up at a party that turns into an orgy, even Candy- and he can’t handle it.

He reminded me very much of a Murakami protagonist – Toru in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle who ends up sitting in a well. He was rather an empty shell and was difficult to engage with, although I quite enjoyed that novel. Thirlwell’s 30ish main character is also hollow – but is also downright indulgent and silly. I felt so sorry for his wife Candy – she must have known he was lying through his teeth to her.

Because, to put this another way, it turns out that in the perfect marriage where you are absolutely trusted there is no end to what you can do. For lying only distils its gorgeousness if you are doing it to the person who wakes up next to you every day, who believes they know your inner heart more than they know their own, that’s the perfect person to lie to because only when you lie to someone like that can you create a perfect lie, … Unfortunately, it leaks all over the picture.

Irritatingly, Thirlwell’s prose does have its moments, but I disliked the narrator so much I couldn’t continue – I gather I’ve missed a whole lot of shenagigans involving a hold-up and gunshots by giving up, but life’s too short. The title was very apt though (with an ironic emphasis on cute). DNF

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thanks):
Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell. Pub Jonathan Cape, Jan 2015, Hardback, 368 pages.

“We gotta get out of this place…”

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how-to-build-a-girlI’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…

I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.

To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.

… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.

… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.

It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit.  Johanna dreams of a future…

… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.

To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?

You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).

The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Jul 2014, Ebury, Hardback 345 pages.
How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, paperback.

P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.

 

A May to December romance with strings…

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

January in JapanOnly reading from my TBR, I searched my shelves for books so that I could join in with January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List.  I could have chosen Murakami – but have had both good and bad experiences with him. It ended up being a choice between Out by Natsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa’s second novel – I chose Ogawa.

I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, review here, a couple of years ago. I was beguiled by that quirky yet serene novel, her debut. Hotel Iris has a similar air of aloofness in writing style, but the subject matter is in no way gentle like her debut …

Mari is a dutiful daughter, manning the desk at her family hotel, the Hotel Iris, situated in a Japanese seaside town. At seventeen, she is totally dominated by her mother who tells her she is beautiful, as every day she styles Mari’s hair into a traditional Japanese bun, held in place with camellia oil.

The book opens with a guest and the prostitute he’d brought back to the hotel causing a kerfuffle and being ejected. Mari is fascinated by the man’s voice. Later she sees him again and follows him. After a few days of stalking they strike up a conversation. He is a translator, and lives an ascetic life on the island off the coast.

The first shock is to find that he is a widower in his sixties, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Mari, she’s ready to fall in love.  The second shock is when she goes with him to the island, and the third is when he ties her up and subjects her to degrading acts which she submits to with increasing pleasure – but always managing to catch the ferry home before her mother wonders where she is.

Earlier that same day, I had been tied to a bed with iron rails that were ideal for securing my ankles and wrists. He had cut away my slip with a large pair of scissors. The blades had been sharpened to a fine edge, and the steel had a dark sheen. He snapped them open and closed in the air, as if to test the sharpness and savor the sound. Then he drew them straight up my body from my spread legs, and the slip fell away as if by magic.

The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the far beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.

My head had been filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.

I had read elsewhere that this book is rather unsettling, but I didn’t really expect it to be quite like the above. To see a young girl submit to this, however loving the administrator is, does not make for easy reading.

When the translator’s nephew, a mute (due to tongue cancer) young man a year or so older than Mari, arrives for a holiday this really does complicate things. As you might imagine, this leads to the final climax.

Although I was naturally concerned for Mari’s plight, I found it hard to warm to her, and I remained deeply suspicious of the translator all the way through, but on the other hand this tale could be described as a coming of age story for Mari – acting out her dark schoolgirl fantasies.  Still, once we see what he does to Mari, we have to wonder about his wife…

For such a dark and disturbing book, Ogawa’s prose, again translated by Stephen Snyder, is cool and always slightly aloof but it does reel you in.  This book was such a contrast to the happy serenity of The Housekeeper and the Professor.  I didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading Hotel Iris, but I was compelled to finish it though.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

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I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

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To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.

 

Serendipity makes this a timely read from And Other Stories…

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I started reading this book around ten days ago, and was shocked and amused in equal measure – but I paused around a third of the way through to give in to the hype and read JK Rowling’s latest (see previous post here) – and  by the time I picked the book up again, a major sex scandal had broken, involving the now tattered reputation of a dead man who had been thought an unlikely hero, and rippling across the world of entertainment as more sexual harassment was revealed.

Sexual harassment is at the heart of this innovative satire, so it’s been a timely read.   However, it’s the means to an end, not the primary target in this novel.  Let me explain…

It’s back in the 1990s, and Joe is a salesman who has lost his mojo. He knows he can be the best, but only if he has the right product to sell in the right place. ‘He had hit rock bottom,’ and is reduced to living in a trailer alone with his masturbatory fantasies, when he’s not philosophising to himself about the art of selling.

…What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them its a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.
… if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a whole lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Joe comes up with the idea for forward-thinking companies (that are full of hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled heterosexual salesmen) to outsource their sexual harassment policies. He will recruit special employees, each ‘a woman in a thousand’ who will be paid a lot extra for anonymously providing services when required, via a specially equipped bathroom cubicle which will present her naked bottom half to the selected male.  They are the ‘lightning rods’.

It’s outrageous!  It’s totally hair-brained!  You won’t be surprised though to hear that Joe finds a company brave dumb enough to try it out. It takes off, but things are never going to be simple, they’re only going to get more and more complicated.  How will Joe cope? Will it work? What sort of woman would want to be take part?

Corporate practices, management programmes, and outsourcing are what this novel is really about.  Nearing the end of the novel, you’ll almost believe it could really happen. You certainly sense the proprietorial pride in Joe, that despite his cod-philosophising whilst watching the birds, he has found an essential truth, (in the immortal words of M.Jagger & K.Richard, which seemed to fit):

“You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometimes you just might find 
You just might find, You get what you need” 

What makes this novel rather special is the language, as has been identified by the other reviews I’ve read too (see below).  Although it’s full of sex of a sort, it’s never prurient, the descriptions are deliberately non-sexy, dead-pan, typically in business speak. Having been through some management schemes in my former life working for a multi-national company, I could recognise some of the types involved in delivering the programmes, and it made me laugh, and be thankful that I don’t work there any more (apart from missing the salary that is).

What I found most interesting though, was the fact that the novel, which despite having a focus on oversexed straight men, was not a male fantasy, but a female satire, written by a woman.  The most powerful characters in the novel were the lightning rods who had their finger on the pulse of Joe’s scheme, and manipulated it and him for their own benefit. There are no easy answers to the questions that the story raises, and the author doesn’t attempt to provide them, she just helps us imagine what if …

This novel was very clever and extremely funny. I loved it. (10/10)

See also reviews by John Self, Alex in Leeds, and Follow the Thread.

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I was sent this book to review by the publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. Pub in the UK Oct 2012 by And Other Stories, posh paperback, 297 pages.

Sex & Show-jumping – only in Rutshire!

Riders by Jilly Cooper.

I have never had a personal desire to get on a horse, but watching show-jumping on telly was a fixture that I looked forward to while growing up.

The Horse of the Year Show with the Puissance always ending with that gigantic wall getting higher and higher, the relay races, and the incredibly tight courses riden against the clock was a week of great viewing. The Hickstead Derby with the iconic Derby bank and swimming pool of a water jump was a must as a relief from tennis which tends to dominate June.  There were also Nations Cup events, where the teams had to ride each other’s horses.

Show-jumping back in the 1970s was full of real characters. Who could forget Harvey Smith, who on having won two Derbys on the trot made a ‘V’ sign to the judges. I always enjoyed watching the Irishman Eddie Macken who cut a dash with his wavy blond locks and green jacket on his horse Boomerang.  It is a shame that show-jumping has all but fallen off the TV schedules.

So, on to Riders by Jilly Cooper.  We’ll be discussing this 919 page chunkster at Book group next week, but as I have to pass the book on promptly to give one of our other members a chance to read it, I decided to write it up now, and will come back with the group’s reactions later to this unconventional choice of reading (for a book group in general that is).

Set in the Cotswolds, Riders is the first in Cooper’s ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ and was published in 1985.  It concerns just two things in its 340,000 words:  Show-jumping and Sex.  It’s a true bonk-buster – one of the originals, complete with an utter cad, toffs and comedy accents, a poor boy made good, with the added thrill of the show-jumping ring, however at its heart it really is a romance and you’re always hoping for a happy ending.

The main story concerns Jake Lovell, an orphan born of gypsy stock who ran away from school to learn about horses.  He wants to set up his own yard and jump horses, but he’s just a groom as the book opens and penniless with it.  Contrasting  with him is Rupert Campbell-Black, rich and charismatic, who beds every woman who crosses his path, unless they’re fat and ugly that is.  A champion show-jumper already, he’s not known for treating his horses with respect.  As it happens, Jake’s mother was the cook at Rupert’s prep-school, and Rupe was always nasty to Jake, so a rivalry is born.

Jake luckily manages to marry a rich, but plain, girl – Tory, who bankrolls his ambitions.  However their relationship is a loving one, well at first! Rupert goes after a rich American socialite, the ravishingly beautiful but brittle Helen.  He eventually gets her, but theirs is not to be a happy relationship, Rupe can’t cope with monogamy, and Helen finds it very difficult to lose her inhibitions.

After Rupert had come, with that splendid driving flourish of staccato thrusts which reminded Helen of the end of a Beethoven symphony, he fell into a deep sleep. Helen, lying in his arms, had been far too tense and nervous of interruption to gain any satisfaction.

It’s not all sex though, there are horses too. Tory’s younger sister Fenella is a promising show-jumper and could, if she tried harder, be picked for the British team with her horses Laurel and Hardy. Being still a teenager, she’s too interested in partying and Jake takes her to task…

‘You’re not going to make a fool of yourself at Olympia,’ he said.
‘I suppose Tory and Dino have been sneaking.’
‘They didn’t need to. One of the Olympic scouts was in Amsterdam. He said if Jesus Christ had ridden that donkey into Jerusalem the way you were riding Laurel and Hardy all week, he deserved to be crucified.’

Cooper engineers many crises and cliff-hangers to keep the gargantuan story moving.  There is a huge cast of other characters, most of whom are simply portrayed, and conform to  type, but fit well into the story. I particularly liked Billy, Rupe’s best friend who rises from being co-tormentor of Jake to being a decent chap and ace show-jumper too, and the only person who can keep Rupe in check, occasionally.  These show-jumpers are the equivalent of stadium rock stars in their world, on tour for ten months of the year, just touching base occasionally – unless they or the horses get injured that is.   Everything moves from Jake’s humble beginnings in the horsey world towards the major climax of him and Rupe starring at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The writing is breezy, earthy and robust, with some swearing and obviously lots of raciness – I remember it being considered very naughty when it came out; of course many novels go far further these days. I do wish we could have reached the end around 300 pages sooner as 919 pages, even if easy to read does take time; but I have to confess that I really enjoyed this racy doorstop of a book!  I will no longer turn my nose up at Jilly Cooper books when I encounter them in bookcases on holiday, I’ll search them out instead, and she could become my guilty secret read.  (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Ridersby Jilly Cooper, Corgi paperback.

Press rewind and edit … Two novellas by Robert Coover

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

Earlier this year, I discovered American author Robert Coover when I was sent his volume in the Pengiun Mini Modern Classics series to read and review (click here).  One of the three stories in that collection, a novella called The Babysitter, was a mini masterpiece; the other two were pretty good too.  I duly resolved to read more of this fascinating author, and soon got the opportunity, as Penguin have reissued three of his books in their new format; I got a freebie through the Amazon Vine programme.

From my Coover reading so far, it would seem that he has two main preoccupations – fairy tales and sex.

These come together in Briar Rose which is a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. Coover’s version though is nothing like you’ve read before. It’s dark and nasty, but totally unlike say how Angela Carter would treat it.  The familiar elements are there: a princess has pricked her finger on a spindle and lies asleep for a hundred years, and a prince arrives to battle through the briars and greet his true love with a kiss.  That is where the similarity ends. Coover imagines what might happen if the wrong prince turned up and raped the princess? What if the princess grew old while asleep? What happens to her bodily fluids? – Yes!  There are hundreds of possible outcomes and he leads us through them in a series of vignettes. We’re never sure whether the princess is dreaming them, or whether they happened and she is doomed to go through it all again until the right prince comes along.  Meanwhile,  between these iterations from sleeping beauty’s point of view, are a similar set of the prince. Wondering what she’ll look like. Will he be the first. Will he be the one?  He battles through the briars for ever it seems, and he begins to wonder if it was worth it…

Spanking the Maid has a similar structure.  Each day, a maid arrives to clean her master’s bedroom, but she always gets something wrong and has to be chastised for it.  She tries so hard, but can never reach perfection, and submits to her punishment, resolving to do better next time.  Her master, doesn’t want to administer it, but feels he has to, to teach her a lesson.  Coover describes the daily spanking in great detail and I was just wishing for it to end.

Coover employed the same stylistic tricks in The Babysitter, (which is in his collection Pricksongs and descants along with several more fairy tales). However in that story, the multiple viewpoints and retelling of events did creep towards a real climax and a thoroughly resolved ending.  Both of these novellas had a ‘There must be more to life than this’ feel for me, and finished on a whimper rather than a bang.  They were both thoroughly distasteful too, full of base emotions, not a whiff of fairy tale romance of real relief!

Although I did wish for both stories to end so I could be released from the vicious cycle of the recesses of his imagination, the writing was compelling. I do feel I would need more stamina to cope with a full length novel of this intensity though. (7.5/10)

For another view on this book, visit Just William’s Luck

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid (Penguin Modern Classics)
Pricksongs & Descants (Penguin Modern Classics)