The problems with other peoples’ dreams…

Humor by Stanley Donwood

humor

The publisher of this book wishes me to vouch for the writer of this book who is a friend of mine in order to utilise whatever celebrity kudos the writer of this quote, i.e. me, has left in order to advance the sales of this book. This has been duly done now in the form of this quote. I am sure the book is very good though I cannot remember what it is called or whether I have read it. I’ve read lots of his stuff and it’s always good and I am in no way biased.  Thom Yorke, middle-aged father of two.

Having read that quote on the blurb for this book, I was intrigued enough by it and its rather lovely cover featuring giant red spiders in a forest to accept a review copy. Stanley Donwood is an artist, renowned for working with the band Radiohead (he designed their OK Computer sleeve for instance). He also illustrated the book Holloway by Dan Richards and Robert MacFarlane which you may have seen.

Humor is a collection of Donwood’s writings grouped into sections named for the four humors – sanguine, phlegm, choler and melancholy. The pieces that make up this collection vary from a single paragraph to over a dozen pages. In the Introduction, Donwood tells us how he mostly wrote these pieces in a period of his life during which he had bad dreams and used to wake with a scream.

In the first Sanguine group is a half-page piece called Game:

I am disturbed to discover that my colleagues have invented a new game which seems to involve attempting to kill me in every juvenile way that presents itself to them. They delight in surprising me with shoves into the paths of oncoming double-decker buses, constructing ridiculous rope-and-pulley devices with the aim of dropping heavy furniture on my head, placing tripwires at the tops of escalators, and other such inanities.
They persist for some weeks, during which I become increasingly adept at avoiding suddent death by blackly humorous means. I feel that my senses are sharpened day by day, that my sight is keener, my reflexes quicker.
Soon I can detect by the smell of linseed oil alone the presence of a cricket-bat-wielding acquaintance in the bathroom. Everything is enhanced. Colours are richer, noises are louder. I awaken to the pattern of life, the weight of deeds.
Eventually my heightened awareness evolves into a vividly focused paranoia. I can only retreat; I move surreptitiously to a small seaside resort on the east coast and wat, slowly, for a death of my own choosing.

That short one does at least have a beginning, a middle and an end, and is not an entirely unknown scenario (cf: Inspector Clouseau and Cato). But many of the other short pieces in this first section were just downright weird – and reading them was a bit like listening to a friend telling you about the weird dream they had last night. Other peoples’ dreams may be bizarre but, sleep scientists and psychiatrists excepted, the weirdness only has any real significance for the dreamer.

In the Phlegm section, a little tale called Condiment is about collecting his  bodily secretions of urine, ejaculate, blood and tears, harvesting the salts from them after the liquid has been evaporated and using it as a spice in cooking. Very odd indeed.

One I did really like from the Choler section was entitled East Croydon – and just comprised a list of the things seen from a train window approaching the station. More Croydon references – they keep on coming, (see my previous post)!

Nearly all the pieces are written in the first person. Many of these ‘micro-narratives’ have that dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to them – they could almost be flash fiction. Others, as we’ve seen above, are more structured. I enjoyed quite a few of these little stories, but many, although bizarre and born of nightmares, lacked either true horror or enough charm, as in Murakami’s recent novella The Strange library for instance (see here).

As a whole, Humor was more of a miss than a hit for me. I’m not a fan of Radiohead’s albums after The Bends (which I adore) either – OK Computer does nothing for me. I did love the glorious painting by Donwood on the endpapers though … (6/10).

Endpapers to Humor by Stanley Donwood

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Source: Publisher – thank you!

To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate links):
Humor by Stanley Donwood. Pub Nov 2014 by Faber and Faber. Hardback, 192 pages.
Holloway by Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. Faber paperback.
OK Computer by Radiohead. CD, 1997.

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Reprint reviews at Shiny…

It has been lovely to contribute to the section of Shiny that Simon edits – Reprints in our August inbetweeny – and not just one article, but two!

BonfiglioliFirstly I’d like to highlight Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the first in a series of cult classics from the 1970s reprinted this summer by Penguin – full review here.

The books feature Charlie Mortdecai – minor aristo, lover of wine, sex, art and having fun. Together with his manservant they have a sort of anti-Jeeves and Wooster relationship, and this book is very funny, very non-PC and is sort of Jeeves & Wooster crossed with Raffles and Lovejoy with a good dash of Ian Fleming thrown in. Loved it.

They’re making a film of one of the books out next year. The trailer is all over the internet. Please – read the books and ignore the film trailer – the film could be brilliant, but it will probably spoil the books for you!

aickmanNext – more cult classics reprinted from the 1960s onwards. I’d not heard of Robert Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ but loved the first two volumes of Faber reprints (with two more still to read).

See my review of them here. Aickman turned out to be a fascinating chap, so I compiled a Five Fascinating Facts article for the BookBuzz section too, see that here.

That’s my plugs for Shiny New Books done now.  I can promise you a book review or two very soon, meanwhile tomorrow evening I’m off to London for a Hesperus do to see Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, scriptwriters for the Swedish Wallander series and authors of a great thriller called Spring Tide.

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!

To explore titles mentioned further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t point that thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks.
Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Faber paperbacks.
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, Hesperus paperback, March 2014.

 

A little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki

SakiCompleteShortStories

Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

Telling it from the monster’s side …

Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Insideby Frank Lesser.

Sad Monsters

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been having a chuckle dipping into this book of humorous short pieces, which are written from monsters’ points of view. Almost any monster you can think of puts in an appearance – let me give you a flavour of some of my favourites:

Questioning Godzilla’s Existence
March 8 – Wound up hitting snooze for six more months. Barely had enough energy to rampage to the bathroom, let alone through a city, but finally rolled out of bed and destroyed Tokyo. Again. Starting to wonder what’s the point? They’re just going to rebuild.
March 12 – Couldn’t sleep, so woke up early and went for a job through Osaka. Kept wondering what happens to people after I stomp on them. Do they have souls that live on, that I can also stomp on? Or is the human soul unstompable? Maybe I’m just going through a midlife thing Never had these worries during the Mesozoic era. When I was younger, each screaming villager felt like a triumph, like I was really doing something with my life. Now I just wish they’d shut up and accept it, or at least quit it with the anti-aircraft missiles. Those thing really irritate my eczema.

The rest of Godzilla’s diary is similarly existential. You can also find a whole series of personal ads, a bestiary of unsuccessful monsters, an interior design guide on how to keep your genie happy, and so on. Then there’s this one:

The Joy of Unicorns
Hey, preteen girls, put down the rock and roll music records and listen up! If you give up your virginity before you get married, you’ll miss out on something far better than sex: befriending a unicorn. …
However, one night of mind-blowing, soul-shattering ecstasy means you’ll never in your life enjoy this magical creature’s gentle nuzzling. (It feels like taking a bubble bath full of giggling puppies!) And unlike a sex-crazed boyfriend, a unicorn will never “use” you. …
So the next time your boyfriend tries to get you to “go all the way,” tell him you don’t want to “horse” around, because you’d rather get “horn-y” with your platonic unicorn. then be sure to tell your unicorn what you said. They love puns, and every time a unicorn laughs, an angel has tender sexual intercourse on her wedding night. And nine months later, a rainbow is born!

I always hated My Little Pony!  There are many more –  notes on the fridge from Dorian Grey’s flatmate, Igor’s résumé and a reference for a yeti who wants to get into fashion to highlight just a few.  My last favourite though is a sermon from a Mer-preacher, here’s a small snippet:

The world above the waves seems to offer so much: sunlight, dancing, food that isn’t sushi. But assimilating into human society is no fairy tale. I would tell you to ask the Little Mermaid, but you can’t, because as we learn in the Gospel of Hans Christian, when her love married someone else, the godless mer-whore disintegrated into sea foam.

Everyone will have their own favourites amongst these forty or so pieces depending on the appeal to the reader of the monsters lampooned – I’m not bothered about mummies or Bigfoot, but love fairy tale beasts, vampires and werewolves and their ilk. Some tales work better than others, but they’re clever, ingenious and full of good puns. My only criticism is that they’re mostly written in the same jocular tone, and if you read more than a few at a time, it can get get a little samey. This is often the case with humour collections though – I love the late Alan Coren’s columns, but again can only read a couple at a time, so distinctive was his voice.

Taken in small bites, I feel I’ve got to know all these Sad Monsters so much better. This book is great fun, and ideal seasonal fare for those who scare easily. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Frank Lesser, pub Oct 2013 by Souvenir Press, paperback.

Scenes from a humorist’s life …

Our book group is having a short story July, concentrating on two authors renowned for their wit: Saki and Thurber.  I’m working my way through Saki, so I’ll deal with him in another post; here I’ll talk about my first experience of reading James Thurber.

My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

James Thurber (1894-1961), was one of America’s foremost cartoonists and humorists, most of his work being published for the New Yorker, and then collected into books.

My Life and Hard Times, which was published in 1933, is the closest thing to a memoir that he wrote.  A short selection of autobiographical stories from his youth, about growing up in the Thurber household in Columbus, Ohio, together with his unique cartoons.  In my edition, the eighty-odd pages of memoir, is sandwiched by an introduction, which puts the book into context, a Preface by Thurber himself, and at the end, Notes by Thurber, an Afterword praising the book’s brevity and jewel-like quality, and finally a brief biography of the man.

I enjoyed Thurber’s preface very much, in which he muses self-deprecatingly about reaching the age of forty and the nature of his type of writing …

I have known writers reaching this dangerous and tricky age to phone their homes from their offices, or their offices from their homes, ask for themselves in a low tone, and then, having fortunately discovered that they were “out,” to collapse in hard-breathing relief. This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to tow thousand words.

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbours, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

That made me chuckle.  So, on to the stories themselves of which there are just nine. Each has an evocative title, the three stand-out ones being: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, and The Night the Ghost Got In.

Most of the stories share an escalating sense of farce, which reels in more and more characters before reaching a critical mass, exploding, and then everyone wonders what had actually happened.

In The Night the Bed Fell, the Thurbers have visitors staying, including Aunt Melissa who was paranoid about burglars, and each night kept a pile of shoes outside her bedroom to throw at them (left).  Odd noises lead to waking up and silly things happening – if I told you more, you wouldn’t need to read the story.

The Day the Dam Broke is like a game of Chinese whispers where a message gets passed on wrongly.  The Night the Ghost Got In is, in a way, and even sillier version of the first involving things that go bump in the night.

Some readers think these comic vignettes are the funniest things ever. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced. I found the tales just mildly amusing, although I loved his preface. The stories, although full of slapstick, are gentle; I’m certainly used to more robust humour.

Then the cartoons. There are very few smiling faces, nearly every person is in profile, and many look very cross indeed. The captions are very matter of fact. However, if you google ‘Thurber cartoons’, there are loads of funny taglines to other drawings, you can buy greetings cards with them on.

I’d like to reserve judgement until I’ve read more Thurber – some of his columns and stories from the New Yorker perhaps, and definitely The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (which I’d always mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but that’s probably Danny Kaye’s fault!).  It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of our book group think.

Have you read Thurber?
What do you think of his cartoon style?
What other humorist’s writing would you recommend?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

A Beryl Bibliography – part two

Following on from last week’s post highlighting Beryl’s earlier novels, here is a brief survey of her later novels and other works to help you choose which books, if any, you’d like to read if you join in with Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week in mid-June. Once more, clicking on a book title will take you to the most readily copies available on Amazon UK via my affiliate link, (they’ll return to the bottom of future posts).

We left the bibliography in Part One in the mid 1980s, after Beryl’s first historical novel proper, something she was to continue with great success in some of her later novels…

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Filthy Lucre(1946, pub 1986).  We start off part two though with a piece of Juvenalia written when she was a teenager.  Subtitled The tragedy of Ernest Ledwhistle and Richard Soleway: A story. I’ve not been able to find out anything about the plot, but have ordered a copy of this novella!

An Awfully Big Adventure(1989)  A third shortlisting for the Booker Prize.  Set in 1950 and following the rehearsals for a Christmas production of Peter Pan, this novel follows the coming of age of young Asst Stage Manager Stella, and her relationships with the director Meredith, and the actor playing Hook. A bittersweet tale of innocence and loss. It was made into a rather good movie with Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant (sadly only available on DVD at over-inflated prices).  I loved this book when I read it ages ago, and will re-read for BBRW.

The Birthday Boys(1991) Bainbridge tells the story of Scott’s final push to the South Pole. The five men each take a turn in telling the story, each putting their stamp on the narrative. Masterful – I loved it (review here).

Every Man For Himself(1996) Winner of the Whitbread Novel Prize, and Beryl’s fourth Booker shortlisting.  It tells the fateful story of the Titanic through the eyes of Morgan, a rich young man related to the ship’s owner.  In concentrating on the first class characters, it paints a portrait of an insular group with an impressive array of vices.

Master Georgie (1998) Gaining a final fifth Booker shortlisting, this novel won the posthumous Booker ‘Best of Beryl’. It follows the story of a Liverpudlian doctor who heads for the Crimea for some excitement. His story is narrated by three different voices of those associated with him: an orphan devoted to her Master Georgie; his scholarly brother-in-law; and a street urchin who becomes George’s lover.

According to Queeney(2001)  Beryl brings the last years of great wit Samuel Johnson to life as see through the eyes of Queeney, the first born daughter of his mistress. We meet many other famous names of the period and explore Johnson’s relationship with his friend and benefactor Mrs Thrale.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress(2011) Beryl’s last novel returns to the late 1960s after Martin Luther King’s assassination. It follows the story of Rose and a man called Washington Harold who travel across the USA in search of a man called Dr Wheeler – each having a need to find him – one benign, one less so.

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Two collections of short stories are available. Mum and Mr. Armitage: Selected Stories from 1985 – a collection of twelve tales that tend to be unsettling in their conclusions; and Collected Storiesfrom 1994. Later editions of this include Filthy Lucre amongst other additions.

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And finally, briefly – on to Beryl’s non-fiction:

Apart from the odd inclusion in other anthologies, that’s it!  I’ve invested in a copies of everything above that I didn’t already have and as soon as they’ve all arrived, I tempt you further with a photo of my stack!

 

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

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The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

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I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome