Category Archives: Unexpurgated book reviews

Review – How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

How to Keep Your Volkswagen AliveHow to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel was a breakfast grapefruit – sour, refreshing, occasionally squirting me the eye with acid. All good things, like that underrated start to the culinary day.

I should first disclose that I am writing this review codeined to the eyeballs and on deadline for something else. It gives it a frantic and digressive edge.

After reading so much fictive bilgewater, ersatz Balzac so removed from the original style of heaving bosoms and toothsome dramatics, as to have entirely forgotten its progenitor…books that were foggy, like a remnant word maimed and altered in meaning until it grates to even hear it (discreet/discrete is my current bugbear) this read GREAT.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger is a good reference point here – I refer you to Buck’s excellent review and attendant discussion thread.

Boucher has written a novel that complements all Shield’s bravura epigrams on the dead dead dead state of traditional storytelling, on the actual form of the novel, and pleaded for alternatives. THIS BOOK IS A REPLACEMENT. An improvement. Zesty.

So, how to describe it without releasing small rodents that knaw at your brain with academic snoozery and make you run screaming, oh book-lover that likes things to, you know, mean something? Something definable. As opposed to applying all those prisms of theory which shatter meaning into a thousand bad copies of the cover of Dark Side of the Moon? Ah. More difficult.

The unnamed narrator has sold everything. His name, his possessions, his stories, hocked the lot. To buy time-as-money, the currency of Boucher’s alternative version of Western Massachusetts. He needs the money because of health-care issues (Oh, the terror of being sick in the US. For smug bastards with national healthcare like me it’s like contemplating the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. You know you will never come out. At least, not as you.)

He has sold it because he has a sick child. His child is a 1971 Volkswagen who runs on stories and requires careful maintenance of his sufferoil, his memorycoil, his unique engineheart. Got that?

You can make a stone-cold analysis of what Boucher is doing here – the alternating chapters of cutesy-hippie lingo in the second person, a faked manual explaining the tao of his strange car (as a former Peugeot owner I know how French things can get). Then a first person patchwork memoir of the narrator, a hack storyteller and misanthrope to whom success is a foreign country. Possessor of a black-belt in self-sabotage, inventor of ghosted persons and mis-remembered histories. His former girlfriends are trapped inside formalist conceits.

It’s a novel of augmentation; of accumulated, startling detail.

Does it sound annoying? A little, but less than you’d think. The dialogue is cracking, and Boucher controls perfectly the balance between the recognisable whims and failings of his protagonist and the otherness of his version of Western Massachusetts, where sentient objects abound, police are CityDogs, and trees regularly are involved in homicides, attacking people’s to eat their hearts.

Themes? The act of writing, more specifically the life of a freelance writer, of writing for money, on spec. Heartlessly. Also, parenthood. Death. Dickheads who won’t grow up, who construct elaborate fantasies to avoid responsibilities of any kind.

I had enormous admiration for the control of this book and the complete and unerring conviction of its vision. It’s the new new fiction, all right. It was also piss funny.

And yet I have a niggling suspicion. Like a few of those writers under-40 sainted by The New Yorker last year (Karen Russell I’m looking at you) I worry that along with fixies, Pancho facial hair and the bad-craft mania gripping women who should know better, the sentimental sweetness, Gen-X nostalgia, is going to date pretty quick.

The thing about grapefruit at breakfast is it needs brown sugar. Boucher has used a little much. At times the tweeness made my fillings hurt. I know why he did it – there’s some heavy stuff going down in Western Massachusetts, but it seemed a little spooked. Like he pulled back from how dark it should have been.

I love post-modernism. I know, kick me. So unfashionable. It seems clear to me that what Boucher and his kind are doing is essentially post-modernism á la Portlandia. It’s good. It’s whipcrack clever. It’s just not as new as it seems on first read.

Put a bird on it.

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Review: The Cook

The CookThe Cook by Wayne Macauley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So Wayne Macauley, a satirist worth his salt, has been round for a while. Good ole’ Black Pepper Press took a punt on his skewered cheese-dreams of Australian aspiration. Not just suburban oiks, the obvious target, but those artistes applying for the wafer-thin dinner mints of grant funding and greater glory. Check out his early books.

But not before you read this one. My, this is a good book. If Jude the Obscure was obsessed by making it to Masterchef instead of Christminister you might get an inkling of the flavor.

Zach the delinquent trained on a TV-chef’s farm with a group of other fuck-ups takes like a zealot to the filet-knife, the butchering, the prep. But like Jude he understands nothing; his vision of where he will go is so myopic, so focussed, he misses the perilousness of his day-to-day life. He is used. He is in the hands of others.

He’s also entirely, suffocatingly creepy. Macauley gives us just enough of Zach in reflective mode to grasp that he feels very little. Shame is his engine. He freaks people out with this.

My only quibble with the book was the deliberate lack of punctuation. It felt like an ruse to elict better concentration from the reader. I read closely, but punctuation helps to slow me down, find repose. It seemed unnecessary.

Things do not end well. But the larger picture is as frightening as the denouement. In the world of food – working class butchers, obsequious deli owners, farmers, even celebrity chefs – things are broken. The dream of money and fame, the aspirational velocity that Australians have been repeatedly told is what we all should have – it’s in tatters.

And therein lies the true wonder of this novel. The dread. The dystopia. The Global Financial Crisis hangs over it as palpably as the fear of nuclear Armageddon hung over Gen X dinosaurs like myself in the early eighties. Remember, Ronald Reagan was going to start bombing in five minutes.

All that Masterchef glitz turns out to be bread and circuses. And I’m talking supermarket sawdust snags and fairy loaf.

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Review: Heat

HeatHeat by Bill Buford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most food writing is shit. It wallows in superlatives as brazenly as real estate hustings. But really good writing about food makes the heart soar.

This is in the second category. Partially because Buford is so craven, so desperate to GET what it is like being young, dumb and full of come in a kitchen more stuffed with wise-asses and borderline personality disorders than the average martini olive.

Lots of guys take up lycra and the bike for their mid-life thingo. Or get expensive mistresses. Or foreign cars (the same thing, really). Buford rather sadly wants to cut it on the line in a four star restaurant. He is known as “kitchen bitch”.

Happily for the reader, as a long-time food obsessed New Yorker staff writer with serious “chops” (sorry) in the descriptive department, it’s a pretty great ride for the reader.

Things I learnt from Bill Buford:
1.Mario Batali is deeply unlikeable.
2.Kitchens are the most unreconstructed misogynist bastions imaginable. Still.
3.Italians love a gesture. The thing that makes it ineffably charming, which gives it gravitas, is that they LIVE by such gestures. Even if it makes their lives in some ways suck.

I was tempted to deduct points from Buford’s giant schwing (sentimental and gee whiz all at the same time which is some feat for an erection) for artisanal production. YES, food made by hand is better. YES, frankenstein food production is a truly terrible side-effect of globalisation. But I’ve heard it a lot. And it doesn’t explain how in reality non-yuppies in urban settings can readily afford organic/local meats and produce. Other than to grown it, which is a HUGE leap for many folks. People don’t want to eat shit, but gee, nutrition is pretty good nowadays. Have you SEEN the SIZE of the feet on sixteen-year-old girls?

I didn’t deduct the points because this book isn’t so new, and perhaps the Michael Pollan-esque message was a bit fresher then.

Buford scores because he makes it fun instead of holier-than-thou. You won’t forget the Tuscan butchers he trains with in a hurry, either.

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Review: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

The Unusual Life of Tristan SmithThe Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Peter Carey is always a gamble. The bower-bird nature of his source material, where his current obsessions – often an aspect of the creative life – is unpicked to the point of immersion, sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn’t. His books are quilts – glass and gambling, painting and forgery, ern malley and the botany of Malaysia. Does that last one jar a little?

You bet it did. My Life as a Fake was the worst Carey book I’ve suffered, a hopeless melange of Frankenstein, Carey’s nostalgia for a good nonya curry, and the fascinating tale of the Malley hoax. With child stealing and post-colonial jungle riffing on the side. It just did not work as a whole book. TOO MUCH. Even Carey can fail to convince us with his incredible ear for jerked dialogue, gumbo politics and grotesque mise en scene.

But this one – Tristan Smith is a pearler. I’d heard absolutely naught about it, and now I know why. It’s tough, in the same way Sterne’s book, one of its obvious echoes, is tough. 150 page diversions on the narrator’s birth aren’t for everybody. As usual, Carey bites off way too much and chews like crazy.

Obsessions, catalogued within:
The theatre, the real experience of acting on stage, and receiving that action – right up close, in the footlights. Raw theatre, Pram Factory Theatre. Sometimes terrible, because it’s risky, alchemical, apt to blow up.
Congenital deformity. How would it work if the protagonist was saddled with serious handicaps to his speech, movement, digestion? Unable to walk? Unable to be looked at?
Politics. Imagine Australia and the US and the deep contradictions of their relationship. BUT – they are not Australia and the US – in this world Australia was a colony of France, the US a colony of Holland. OK.
Linguistics. The above shift means that the cultural referents, the slang, the religion, everything – has evolved differently. And you’d better keep up ’cause he ain’t explaining it.
Circus. The history of danger and mimetics, Hermes-trickery and human sacrifice – it’s Cirque de Soleil without nets, with the possibility of death. Circus as actual religion, as addiction.

It’s mad and magnificent. I read it in total silence and concentration away from everything, and was convinced and transported to those places without question. It’s hard work. I bet it wasn’t popular. But read it; The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is shit hot.

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Review – The Light of Common Day

Light of Common Day (Lives & Letters)Light of Common Day by Diana Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is such a strange, unworldly gem of a thing. Diana Manners is living proof that the English upper class might have been odd, chinless and wretched but they were also clever, generous, observant and brave. Manners was one of the bright young things (in fact, a close friend of Waugh, whom she called Mr Stitch, I think) for whom The Great War stuffed up the party forever more. Also gorgeous and and as highly strung as a Red Setter, natch.

It was speculated that she married Duff Cooper because he was the only suitable man left in her circle, but it seems a real love match in this book. Dog-eared, irascible love, with love affairs, long separations and devotions. A child born late and unexpectedly. A successful political career for Duff that takes them in this second volume of autobiography to the brink of war, with him as big brass for the Admiralty, bitching on the telephone with Winston. Chamberlain fires him.

And Diana has her own path which veers from silliness, clinging to admiration and compacts from Cartier for validation, to a horror of sudden death, to working the suburban hustings in elections, throwing parties in Geneva simmering with the tension of war, and entertaining jaunts with the POW and Wallis cruising the Adriatic. There’s also dinner with King George, and everything in between.

She was also a genuine stage star in a play that seems so silly and ponderous that surely we’re ready for a revival of it – The Miracle. She played the Virgin Mary some nights, others the Nun. She looked really hot in a wimple. It must have had something – all the luminaries of silent film from UFA and Germany were in on it’s staging – so it must have been gesturally interesting at least. The Americans adored it. I sniff ham. A lot of ham.

Such an extraordinary biography was enough to make me pick up this dirty old paperback with eye-bleed tiny print, but I wasn’t expecting much. Diana Cooper is an amazing writer – her skills are those of an inveterate letter writer, witty, sotto voce and full of private jokes, asides and codes. Abrupt changes in register only add to the book’s charm. Here are two extracts pages apart. This letter is to Duff, about the party she is planning to give for chums in Geneva during an assembly of the League of Nations – at where? Oh, Byron’s Villa Diodati. A surprise party, catered.

“Just come from visiting Maurice de Rothschild, who used swim with me in Venice covered in blubber. He still had some on his nose and chin today to cure a fast-generating cold. He was quite unselfconscious about it and snatched kisses as he showed me his monstrous chateau stacked with Boldini pictures of fine ladies with feet like submarines. I have to lunch with him and his blood-brother Litvinov tomorrow, in exchange for which supplice he will give all my boys dinner and Chateau Yquem.

On Friday I am throwing my Byronic fete in the empty Villa. The room was decorated by Jean Jaquet in boiserie and busts. The chairs are covered with chintz that Byron himself chose. John Julius and I have collected sixty candelabra from various antiquaires. I’ve ordered the collation – consomme chaud, langoustes, pate de canard de Perigord, entremets, friandises et fruits.”

At home in London the following week, preparing for war:
“I had found daytime occupation at the W.V.S., a body some years old, of voluntary women who give their services to a wide number of causes. Lay Reading, its begetter, had organised her helpers to assemble gas-masks for civilians, so Venetia Montagu and I sat in the Tothill Street workrooms clamping snouts and schnozzles on to rubber masks, parcelling them and distributing them to queues of men and women. Mothers would ask me for small ones for children. There were none as yet. I felt sick all the time, like many others, no doubt. It was a grisly job for a neurotic but better than inaction.”

Oh, to be a celebrity like this. Famous only to other people important to history or talent or breeding. And the rest of the world leaving you alone except for that lovely charge account at Fortnum and Mason and a wonderful tailor. Also a tromphe d’oeil painter for your library. No shit.

The letters between Cooper and her dear friend and “gothic farmer” Conrad Russell are the best thing in the book. Pleasure beyond comprehension. Literally, sometimes. Cooper makes glancing references to so many things that are simply gone from culture, the referents vanished. Made me sad that seventy years could do that – only an English person would be able to explain the things I had missed properly, an Englishwoman of a certain class, old enough to be dead.

I will be reading the other two volumes, and the published letters between her and Mr Stitch. She has bewitched me.

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Review – The Silver Crown

The Silver CrownThe Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vivid memories of the effect this book had on me when my teacher Mrs Leish read this to us in grade four – and finding the edition I had then, a photo-realist painting of Ellen wearing the silver crown itself, her blue eyes unblinking as she enters into a trance – made me dare to read it again.

Let’s face it, going back to your taste in grade four often is a big no-no.

I choreographed a dance to “angel in the centrefold” around that time. I studied ballet in the sense it was compulsory at my genteel school and I hated and sucked at it, the fat myopic girl in the back row.

I loved Mighty Isis. Need I go on?

So expected this book to pall but couldn’t resist the seduction of the excitement I felt as each installment was read, standing behind Mrs Leish and massaging her shoulders (a favored task we all vied for, despite her dandruff).

It’s still pacy and brutal, with kind adults that turn up at the right time to balance the horrible assassins and hunters that are trying to capture the children and the crown. I can now clearly finger Robert C. O’Brien and Russell Hoban as the architects of my love of arcana, a gnostic sense of the universe as likely to fuck you at any time (thanks, Demi-urge), and the seductive power of the quest, particularly with lots of detail about survival skills and self-sufficient children. OK, My Side of the Mountain might have to take the blame as well.

Still, the invocation of secret, evil knowledge, crazy self-aware machines made by monks invoking ‘Hieronymus’, mind-controlling stones etc is gibberish, pure and simple. Appealingly simple for ten-year-olds, who even then if I remember rightly, let the lameness slide a bit. Learning how to “deadfall” trap squirrels, throw knives and beat the bad guys will compensate for almost any McGuffin.

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Review: Let’s See

Let's See: Writings on Art from The New YorkerLet’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker by Peter Schjeldahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The bagel-chewiness of these essays kept me at them for a while, one or two a day was plenty – but unsurprisingly it increased the already throbbing cerebral horn I have for Schjeldahl’s prose.

He isn’t afraid of the purple, if something has really inspired him he’s off in a tizz of jangling sensational claims. The writing isn’t cool, it’s opinionated and at times, piss-funny.

An ideal combination of high and low registers, his essays sometimes felt like a satire on all that worthy, snoring art-writing that academia specialises in producing. It’s zestiness points towards a Mennipean spirit.

It also pointed me towards the work of modern American artists, painters in particular, whose work I barely knew. Country libraries don’t oblige me with monographs on them, but I have a good shopping list for the f800s next time I’m at a Uni library, or fall into a vat of money and can buy books.

He can be an utter bitch too, while nicely justifying why he’s sharpening his critical knives.

I want to quote extensively my favorite bits in this review, but instead, just get out and read it. Go on.

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