Monday, December 5, 2016

20 Funniest Novels Of All Time

Most of the funniest novel ever lists on the internet are completely useless because the list compiler is not well read. For example this list in The Daily Telegraph contains almost no American novels and this one for GQ contains very few British novels. Neither has Michel Houellebecq on there. I am well read however. Too bloody well read. I really need to get out of the house and go for a walk or something. Ok, my list. Some rules I've made for myself: These have to be novels which is why one of the funniest books ever The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain isn't on the list. I'm pretty loose with my definitions though which is why I allow Hunter Thompson and Jerome K Jerome on there (they claim to be memoirs but are mostly made up). Another rule I have is only 1 book per author otherwise we'd have 15 Waugh and Wodehouse on there, wouldn't we? It's got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim for example just doesn't cut it. I'm also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn't or perhaps used to be funny but isn't anymore. I've read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare's comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny. Despite what English Lit professors claim Tristram Shandy is wryly amusing but not fucking funny. Maybe they all used to be but humour dates faster than literature which is why they are still great pieces of literature but just not very funny anymore. Don Quixote is another one - terrific novel (esp the self referential post modern 2nd part) but not so hilarious. Some authors who just avoided my top 20 were Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, Christopher Moore, Clive James, Nora Ephron, Jonathan Coe. A final word about my number #1 pick. This is the blackest of black comedies. So funny its actually not funny. Or perhaps so not funny its actually funny. One of those. Most of you will hate it.


20 Puckoon - Spike Milligan
19 The Mezzanine - Nicholson Baker
18 Then We Come To The End - Joshua Ferris
17 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
16 Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas - Hunter S Thompson
15 Portnoys Complaint - Philip Roth
14 Vineland - Thomas Pynchon
13 Guards, Guards - Terry Pratchett
12 The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien
11 Lanzarote - Michel Houellebecq
10 This Charming Man - Marian Keyes
9 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
8 The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
7 The Code of the Woosters - PG Wodehouse
6 Decline And Fall - Evelyn Waugh
5 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
4 Three Men In A Boat - Jerome K Jerome
3 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Dog of the South - Charles Portis
1 The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills

Friday, December 2, 2016

Love, Nina

We're all aware of the TV and film trope of the "magical Negro" a mysterious older black man or woman who dispenses wisdom to square or sometimes racist white folks. Morgan Freeman played a lot of these parts. In Britain they have a similar concept and it's basically the magic working class person. When a member of the upper classes encounters a working class person it can be a field ripe for the magic Negro treatment or, worse, condescending mockery. I despair of these programmes and there are a lot of them because almost all of the UK's cultural product is produced by a super posh privileged minority (which is why they are generally very bad). Previews of the new BBC show Love, Nina seem to suggest that it's about a working class nanny helping super posh people in North London learn about life and love. This is the kind of show I would have run a country mile from especially since Helena Bonham Carter plays one of the posh people. Fortunately for me I didn't see any of the previews. I chanced upon the show changing channels and was immediately captivated by the writing. The writing is fucking brilliant. When you're surfing through the channels you notice how bad the writing is on everything so when you come across good writing by random it really makes an impression. And after 60 seconds of really good dialogue of Love, Nina episode 1 I was bloody hooked. The writing, I learned from the credits, was by Nick Hornby. So that explained that. The acting is also good. No, great, the acting is also great. And the story inverts the magic Negro idea by having Nina learn from the posh people just as they learn from her. It's a two way street. It's a meeting of equal cultures not colonialism. 
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It's also very sweet. The sweetest, gentlest show I've seen since The Detectorists Season 1. It's as British as a decent cup of tea and a plain digestive. And funny, humane, well observed and, um, well, nice. I liked it very much. Look for Love, Nina when you're out channel surfing next time and I think you'll like it too. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

As You Wish - Cary Elwes

I'm at the point in my life where I can read whatever I want without feeling guilty that I should be ploughing through the classics first. I've ploughed through the classics. La chair est triste et j'ai lu tous les livres - ok? So if I wanna read some corny book about the making of The Princess Bride I can, all right? Why do you have to keep bugging me about bloody Silas Marner? Life is too short for Silas bloody Marner! 
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Ahem, where was I. . .oh yes. As You Wish, the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. Elwes is a good writer. He cowrote the screenplay for last year's sleeper Elvis and Nixon and his prose is smooth and agreeable sort of like himself with his blue eyes and pretty pretty face. And this entire book is fairly pleasing if you have even a passing interest in how the movie came together. I listened to the audiobook and there were nice little additions from the cast and crew throughout. So it's all fine. 
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But here's the thing. Rob Reiner is an easy going director and everybody got on with everybody else and there were no major problems with the shoot and in the end they produced a pretty good movie. So where's the bloody drama? Much more entertaining are the books and films about the movie shoots that went horribly horribly wrong. Lost Soul, a documentary about the making of The Island of Dr Moreau is a classic. Now that was a movie that knew how to do drama around its production and the story of that movie could make 10 interesting books. Terry Gilliam's famously disastrous The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is another great movie about the making of a movie (that never actually got made). And Werner Herzog's diary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Conquest of the Useless, might be among the best things he's ever done. 
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The worse it is for the cast and crew the more fun it is for us. So when everybody gets on and it all works out....that leads to, well, As You Wish, an amiable little book about an amiable film. Ok, now back to George bloody Eliot. 
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Exit, Pursued By A Bear: The North Water by Ian McGuire

"Hull is other people" is a nice gag from a Christopher Hitchens review of Philip Larkin's letters that beautifully sums up The North Water. The book begins in a grim Hull dockyard sometime in the late 1850's with a rape and murder by one Henry Drax who is taking ship on a Hull whaler bound for Greenland. Drax is a harpooner by trade who boards the good ship Volunteer looking for opportunities of every kind. Also on the Volunteer is the Irish ship's surgeon Patrick Sumner who went to medical school in Belfast but who through unlucky circumstance has ended up in Hull. Hull and Belfast then (another echo of Philip Larkin). 
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The North Water is a great read by a new author (at least new to me) Ian McGuire. The characterisations are superb and the language is often very beautiful. The story moves quickly too. It is, as Jerry Lee Lewis liked to say: no filler, all killer. The reviews on the cover are from Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel and people like that and the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize. I liked it very much too but, and here's the rub, in many ways its really just a Patrick O'Brian novel for people too snobby to read Patrick O'Brian. A philosophical Irish ship's surgeon who is addicted to opium? Check. Encounters with whales and whaling? Check. A shipwreck on an ice flow? Check. A crew divided against itself with a maniac onboard? Check. Climbing inside a bearskin to survive? Check. Return passage on a ship called the Truelove? Check. Now what Mr McGuire is doing here is called a homage and I admire that but for those of you (and you know who you are) who are too stuck up to read the source material I'll point you anyway to Desolation Island/Post Captain/The Far Side of the World/The Wine Dark Sea/The Truelove which are the Aubrey-Maturin novels that cover this material. 
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I'm not knocking The North Water. It's a great book. I am knocking those people who knock Patrick O'Brian as a mere romancier. He's as good a writer as McGuire and he got there first. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rogue Heroes

So this is my kind of book. I love Ben MacIntyre's stuff. He did that book Operation Mincemeat about the plan to fool the Nazis about the invasion of Sicily and he did a great documentary on the BBC about that traitorous scum Kim Philby. Before MacIntyre's documentary the BBC had done a couple of other documentaries about what a decent but conflicted chap Philby was, but MacIntyre makes clear that he was an awful person who worshipped Stalin. MacIntyre's war books are guilty pleasures. They're dad books. Sort of like watching Top Gear or The Grand Tour you can't really understand why you're doing it but you feel yourself sucked in. I wasn't going to mention Rogue Heroes here on the blog because I thought it was the sort of thing only I was interested in, but actually The Washington Post just picked this as one of its 10 best books of 2016 so I guess other people might get a kick out of it too. 
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I picked up Rogue Heroes because I wanted to read more about the mad Ulsterman at its heart: Blair (Paddy) Mayne. Blair Mayne was an Irish rugby international and lawyer who discovered in 1939 that he had an extraordinary genius and love for war. He joined the British Army, became a commando and first fought the Vichy French in Lebanon at the famous Battle of the Litani River. (A river I visited in very weird circumstances but that's a story for another time.) Thrown into a Cairo prison for striking a superior officer he was facing court martial and years in a military stockade when David Stirling got him out and asked if he wanted to help form a new organisation called the SAS who were going to strike Rommel's airfields and supply lines hundreds of miles behind the lines in the Sahara desert. Mayne said yes and the two men invented the Special Air Service. Mayne went onto blow up dozens, perhaps hundreds of Luftwaffe planes on a succession of crazy raids all over North Africa. 
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Stirling got captured on one of those raids and taken to Colditz Castle while Mayne's SAS moved to Italy and France blowing up trains, supply dumps and airfields for the rest of the war. Mayne seems to have had the time of his life, never feeling better when he was under fire or facing imminent death. He was a warrior poet like some dude out of the Iliad reading and writing verse while surrounded by enemies trying to kill him. It was peace-time Mayne couldn't handle and at home he went on drinking binges and got himself in fights with all and sundry. This book tells the story of Mayne, Stirling and the SAS from 1940 - 1945. A dad book, yes, but if its sounds like your cup of tea you, like me, will dig it. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

New Website

After 12 years I finally got my own personal website: OFFICIAL ADRIAN MCKINTY 

I think it looks rather nice.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Arrival

At time of writing this movie has a 96% rating on rotten tomatoes. Has the world gone mad? Well, obviously that's a rhetorical question. The events of the last week are more than enough evidence for that...Anyway back to the film. This was billed as "intelligent" sci-fi. Aliens come to Earth in egg shaped spaceships and the military hires Amy Adams, a linguist, to help them communicate with them. Amy Adams, apparently, is in mourning for her dead daughter in a minimalist beachside mansion on the shores of Lake Michigan or somewhere like that. At least I think that was what was happening. The movie was so poorly lit I couldn't really see anything beyond the immediate focus of the camera. The movie was directed by Denis Villeneuve who is a French Canadian who wears a lot of scarves. He previously directed the overpraised Prisoners and Sicario but at least in those movies you cd see what was going on, even if you didn't enjoy what was going on. This time he has decided not to show you what was going on. I dunno, maybe the projector was malfunctioning in the cinema I went to. 
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The plot is a cynical mash up of Contact and Jacob's Ladder. And, er, that's it. No, really that's the whole fucking thing. The third act twist is the twist from Jacob's Ladder. The 1st and 2nd acts come from Contact. Neither of these was a particularly good or convincing movie to begin with and to rip them off is a bit sad. The Arrival has no drama or suspense or interest whatsoever. Plenty of bathos though and the manipulation of emotions. A dead kid in the first five minutes? Come on, people, we're better than that. We don't fall for that shit. Not in a sci-fi movie. Alien 3, Gravity I'm looking at you. Its a hack move and it is unearned emotion. The Arrival stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner who are the perfect, bland nothing burger white people the script demands. Near the end you think the movie is going to have a Chinese army dude be the bad guy but then you remember that because of the Chinese market we will never see a villain from China in a Hollywood movie ever again, so that effectively ends any lingering possibility of tension. The movie blah blah blahs its way to anti climax. 
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I read a novel called Fluency a few years ago about a female linguist who is recruited by the military to attempt to communicate with aliens and when I saw the trailers for The Arrival I just assumed that Arrival was the movie version of Fluency. It isn't. Fluency was good. The Arrival is terrible. Mawkish and dull and just plain bad. Its a dumb person's view of what smart sci-fi is. Ugh. And this is the asshole they've chosen to direct the sequel to Blade Runner? Jesus. Buy some fucking lights mate and buck up your ideas and stop wearing scarves. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Symphony For The City of the Dead - Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Symphony For The City of the Dead by MT Anderson is the kind of book I wish
I'd written. I know the city and I know the subject matter and I know the symphony and if I'd gotten off my arse and gone and done the research I probably could have produced a book about half as good as this one. It's the story of course of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. This was Shostakovich's seventh symphony and his opus #60. It was begun before World War 2 but only finally completed during the extraordinary circumstances of the siege of Leningrad after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht's Army Group north pushed right to the edges of the Leningrad (known before and now as St Petersburg) and surrounded it to the south and east while the Nazis' Finnish allies surrounded it to the North. For 900 days the city was completely surrounded and attacked mercilessly. While the city was being bombarded by heavy artillery and bombed relentlessly by the Luftwaffe the greatest Russian composer of the twentieth century Dmitri Shostakovich was working on his masterpiece (one of his masterpieces anyway) in cellars and bomb shelters and occasionally in music rooms and rehearsal spaces. Eventually evacuated first to Moscow and then a safe-ish city on the Volga Shostakovich finished his symphony in early 1942 where it took on a new life as a propaganda piece that toured the world raising awareness of Russia's war effort. 
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MT Anderson unpacks all of this and provides the context for Shostakovich's life and career and explains how his music fitted in or rather didn't fit in to the expectations of the New Order established by the Soviet Union. I was particularly moved by the sections of the book dealing with Stalin's terror. So many of Shostakovich's friends, acquaintances, fellow artists and musicians were randomly dragged off the streets and murdered by Stalin that it's amazing he didn't go mad or kill himself. He almost did go mad when a review written by Stalin himself in Pravda accused him of bourgeois tendencies. Immediately he was made a persona non grata and all the professional music bodies in Russia denounced him. Perhaps he eventually would have been killed by Stalin's NKVD had not war intervened. 
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You can get Symphony For The City of the Dead at all good bookshops and you can listen to Shostakovich's 7th Symphony here

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Belfast Noir Boom

The BBC are really helping me out these days...Last Thursday BBC Radio Ulster had a documentary on what they are calling the "Belfast Noir" or "Nordy Noir" boom. This is what I've been saying for bloody years. The next big thing in crime fiction isn't coming out of Bergen or Bornholm its coming out of Belfast. Many of my old pals are on the doc: Stu Neville, Claire McGowan, Brian McGilloway, Steve Cavanagh etc. I'm on after Stu at the 10 minute mark. For some reason I get to talking about Jessica Fletcher and marzipan and Belfast crime fiction of course. 

You can listen to the whole show, here. It's very entertaining



Friday, November 4, 2016

Desert Island Books

BIG thank you to Ian Rankin who was on the "desert island books" segment of Simon Mayo's BBC radio 5 show. The premise is that you're stranded on a desert island only with 6 books and Mr Rankin chose The Cold Cold Ground as one of his books. Ian obviously has a lot of clout, on Wednesday night The Cold Cold climbed 33,000 places on Amazon.co.uk to be the 200th best selling book in the entire country. This is a super nice pat on the back from a guy I really look up to. Nice bit of timing too...

You can listen to the segment here 




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sebastian Barry - Days Without End

My  review of the new Seb Barry novel from last week's Weekend Australian newspaper: 

ADRIAN MCKINTY

The Australian12:00AM October 29, 2016

In a surprising and delightful change of pace from his Man Booker Prize shortlisted Dublin novels A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry’s new book, Days Without End, is a picaresque adventure story set on the American frontier in the 1850s and 60s.

Thomas McNulty is in his early teens when the potato famine hits his native Sligo. His family are fairly well-off lower-middle-class merchants but they are sucked into the vortex as blight and starvation beginning killing everyone in the county and destroy McNulty Sr’s family business. With the last of their resources, Thomas’s parents put him on a ‘‘fever ship’’ to Quebec; he miraculously survives and drifts south into America.

Out in the western goldfields he meets John Cole — the love of his life — and the two boys, scrubbed and shaved and put into drag, become private dancers for woman-starved miners in a saloon run by the kindly Titus Noone. Tiring of this life, they enlist in the US Army and are posted to a lonely fort in the Nebraska Territory where they have various dealings with the Lakota Sioux.

Thus far the jaunty tone of the novel reminded me of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man or John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor but out on the hard cold prairie we delve into a deeper, harder, more troubled soil. The nasty, brutal, personal nature of the Indian Wars between the white men and the Lakota is explored in a harrowing sequence where the cavalry conducts a well-organised massacre at an Indian camp.

This part of the book is as disturbing as anything in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and I was relieved when the Civil War kicks off and Cole and McNulty are sent east with their regiment. Before they go they adopt an orphaned Indian girl called Winona and send her to live with old Mr Noone, who promises to supervise her education and look after her.

As the Grand Army of the Republic moves down into Virginia we are treated to several spectacular set-piece battle scenes. Here again there are echoes of other novels, most notably Michael Shaara’s masterpiece The Killer Angels. When everything goes horribly wrong and the entire regiment surrenders, we freeze and starve for several unhappy chapters in the nightmare that was the Confederacy’s Andersonville prison during the winter.

Finally exchanged for rebel prisoners, John and Thomas move in with Mr Noone and Winona, who are living in a hardscrabble town on the Missouri River. Noone is running minstrel shows now, but McNulty suggests a revival of their drag act, with Winona blacked up as a maid. The shows are wildly popular and Thomas and John live together as husband and wife with Winona as their daughter.

With the money saved from their drag act they move to Tennessee to help a fellow veteran run his tobacco plantation, and life there is violent and dangerous but ultimately pleasant and good. We know it cannot last, though, and the repercussions of that massacre at the Lakota camp a decade earlier stretch across time and 1000 miles of country all the way to Thomas and John’s farmstead in Tennessee. The Lakota chief Caught-His-Horse-First has kidnapped one of the fort commander’s daughters and is willing to swap her for his sister’s child, Winona.

What distinguishes Days Without End from other books in the western genre or other picaresque novels set in this period is the fascinating family dynamic Barry establishes between John, Thomas and Winona. Without labouring the point, Barry gives us a convincing and moving gay/transgender love story that feels completely authentic. We know now that hundreds of women dressed as men served as soldiers in the Civil War (often the ruse was only uncovered on the mortuary slab), and similarly there is a historical basis for boy ‘‘mollies’’ working as dancers or prostitutes along the frontier (and in London and Paris, for that matter).

Thomas is a thoughtful, brave and sympathetic protagonist and his adventures, particularly in the final third of the book, had me on the edge of my seat, hoping that everything would work out and that we would get the Little Big Man ending rather than the Blood Meridian ending. The book is written in first-person, faux-19th-century prose from Thomas’s perspective; this might irritate some readers, but after a couple of pages I had completely bought into the narrator’s voice and I found the writing to be lyrical, funny and often very beautiful.

Patrick O’Brian used to say that historical novels were a despised genre and that historical sea stories were hated most of all. Yet his endeavours changed the way we perceived Napoleonic sea stories and raised the genre. Similarly, Hilary Mantel made us look again at the much ploughed field of Henry VIII’s marital difficulties. The western novel too could do with a reboot and Barry’s superb Days Without End may be just the book to kick it off.

Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is Rain Dogs.

Days Without End

Saturday, October 29, 2016

How I - Possibly - Fixed The Problem With The Booker Prize

Three years ago I wrote a blog post about how corrupt the Booker Prize was. I pointed out that the prize was almost always judged by a narrow little clique of posh private school types who lived in leafy north London who almost always awarded the prize to 1 of their own, or failing that, to a harmless member of the Commonwealth who'd had the good sense to also be posh and to have moved to England. To back up my instincts I did a statistical analysis of the Booker Prize judging panels and discovered that almost every chair person had gone to private school or boarding school whereas for the UK population as a whole the private school percentage is about 6% and the boarding school percentage is less than 1%. That's why I argued that no working class writers had won the Booker Prize in the previous 30 years and why it had gone to middling or lesser talents (Jimmy Kelman the notable exception) who spoke with the right accent and went to the right dinner parties. Why don't they give the Booker to Zadie Smith or Jeanette Winterson or Monica Ali when everybody knows that they're the best three novelists writing in England today? I asked. The whole thing was a giant fix I claimed but I had the stats to prove it. 
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Bizarrely this little blog post on an out of the way crime writers blog that nobody reads made some waves. I talked it about it on the radio and a newspaper asked if they could reprint it as long as I removed some of the invective against the boarding school cliques who run Britain. I declined that offer but I did note that the article had been shared many times more than my normal blog posts and interestingly it was viewed about 5000 times in...wait for it...North London. 
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So anyway the blog went out there and rippled a few ponds and things weirdly started to change. In the original post I said that working class writers were generally better than upper middle class writers because they'd led more interesting lives and read more and tried harder. Just put a few working class writers on the Booker long list I said and I bet their books would actually win. 
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For the last three years the winner of the Booker Prize has been a working class writer. In the previous 30 years only 1 working class writer had won the prize. Coincidence? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe I shamed the fuckers into being fair or at least fairer than they had been until then. Now it's just up to them to get some working class women on the list.
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Super posh people beware. Your days of running everything and winning everything are numbered. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

True Detective & Philosophy

a post from a coupla years back
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I think one of the reasons why True Detective was so surprisingly good was because the show's writer did not go to Harvard. In Hollywood these days it seems that most of the people in the writers rooms are Ivy League educated men (its almost always men) who grew up in very comfortable upper middle class homes. They've read a lot of books, interned at all the right places, made all the right connections and look presentable but they know absolutely nothing about life. Nic Pizzolatto who wrote and was the showrunner on True Detective does not come from that world. As Wikipedia explains he "grew up poor in a working-class Catholic family in New Orleans and at age 5 he and his family moved to the rural area outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana." In interviews Pizzolatto has talked about growing up in a house without books and how he became increasingly estranged from his surroundings. Wikipedia again: "Lots of poor people there, lots of drinking and fighting and cheating. Also lots of fanatical religion and illiteracy. It’s a rough place." When he finally did get out of Lake Charles Pizzolatto became an autodidact who devoured books and became interested in metaphysics. Perhaps because of his background and probably because he didn't study philosophy at university he was able to pursue his interests in a very unfashionable school of moral philosophy and ethics: the philosophy of pessimism.
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Although it had ancient antecedents pessimism's philosophical foundations were laid down for the most part by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Schopenhauer influenced in no small part by Buddhism believed that life was largely one of suffering and pain. We are, Schopenhauer says, driven remorselessly by time's whips and even when our wants are satisfied there is no feeling of achievement or satisfaction, but merely a new want that begins bugging us. (I was sufficiently interested in Schopenhauer to write a novel about a group of Schopenhauer inspired cultists who moved to a South Pacific Island to escape the world.) Although some professional philosophers believe that Schopenhauer has been superseded by Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants he really hasn't. Schopenhauer's skepticism about the inherent utility of life itself is still a potent lance with which to poke utilitarians and Kantian deontologists. 
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Nic Pizzolatto's main philosophical influences are the modern viverian skeptics David Benatar, Thomas Ligotti and Eugene Thacker. I've read Benatar and Ligotti and was quite impressed by the singularity of their vision and the purity of their argument if not quite completely won over by the bleakness of their world-view. Benatar is a proper peer reviewed philosopher at the University of Cape Town. His book Better To Have Never Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence is a thorough, contemporary account of pessimism. Benatar argues that life is suffering and pain and (like his namesake Pat) that even love is a, er, battlefield. His conclusion is that non existence is the only sensible course for a sentient being and that more sentient beings should not be brought into the world. If he had killed himself shortly after finishing the book I would find Benatar's argument a bit more convincing but he seems to live a pretty good life in Cape Town and this good life that he lives is a kind of refutation of everything he says in the book, don't you think?
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Thomas Ligotti is a different kettle of fish. Like his namesake Gyorgy Ligeti Ligotti is obsessed by the austere beauty of the dark. Ligotti is a horror writer very much influenced by the pessimistic gothic fiction of HP Lovecraft and the ghost stories of MR James. True Detective in fact often feels like it is taking place in Lovecraft's universe and Cthulu himself is perhaps the mysterious terrifying presence lurking in the bayou in the guise of the Yellow King. (If you ever played Call of Cthulu in the 1980s you'll remember that Cthulu inspired insanity was an important part of the game.) Ligotti's non fiction work The Conspiracy Against The Human Race  is a brilliant literary and philosophical analysis of the pessimistic strain in contemporary culture. Not exactly a nihilist Ligotti is an anti-natalist who believes that the human race cannot be redeemed and that consciousness was an "evolutionary mistake."
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I don't know much about Eugene Thacker but he sounds really interesting too. He's a philosopher at the New School in New York. In an interview with Scapegoat magazine he talked about what attracts him to pessimism: 

That is a good definition of “pessimism” to me—the philosophy of the futility of philosophy.[This thread is taken up from] Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Pascal, the French moralists. . .writing against the presuppositions of grand, systematic philosophy, composed as it is of fragments, aphorisms, stray thoughts. There is a subtractive rigour to this kind of pessimism, what Nietzsche called the rigour of the “unfinished thought.”  

There's a good wikipedia page about Thacker, here. Since I have your attention I'd also like to mention my old philosophy tutor John Gray who is a well known anti-utopianist and a skeptic about progress in culture and morals. His most recent book is The Silence of Animals
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If you're interested in this topic there's a very nice dialogue on The Vulture between Matt Patches and Paul J Ennis where they talk about Detective Rust's nihilistic world view and the - slight - plagiarism controversy over whether Rust's ideas were 'lifted' from or inspired by Ligotti. In the very last act of True Detective, Pizzolatto has Rust change his mind about nihilism and I think this was a bit of a cop out, probably inspired by nervous producers who wanted a little light at the end of the tunnel. Apart from that minor failure of nerve True Detective is as good an exploration of pessimism as you'll see in contemporary culture. My original post looking at some of these aspects and exploring the feminist critique of the show is here. 


Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Girl With All The Gifts, The Girl On The Train, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Gun Street Girl

...Morrigan the crow...
The Girl With All The Gifts is the only plausible zombie book I've ever read: scientific, charming (no really), witty and scary this is a great little novel. The movie version is out in the UK right now and has been getting generally good reviews. The Girl On The Train has inspired either love or loathing since it was published and became a runaway best seller - on the whole I liked it: the story of a drunk girl who fakes being a commuter to Euston every morning so she can fit in with society. Yes the story turns on the hacky devices of coincidence and amnesia but the layers of the onion peel back in a most entertaining way. I havent seen the movie but Emily Blunt looks way too well preserved to be the drunk of the book. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an incredibly bad Swedish mystery novel that rails against the violence directed against women but is stuffed to the gills with explicit torture porn. Horrible prose, dreary cliches (fat American tourists etc.), a locked room mystery where we are not given all the information & the launching of the Nordic Noir juggernaut are just some of this book's many crimes. The Swedish and American movie versions were ok. Gone Girl is a well written thriller with your classic dishonest narrator: deservedly popular for its unlikeable leads (I love that), twisty first half and downbeat ending Gone Girl deserved its success, unlike Dragon Tattoo. I thought the movie version did a pretty good job with the book. Tyler Perry was great and the Nancy Grace character was excellent. Gun Street Girl is the fourth novel in my own Sean Duffy Series. Sold a fraction of the other books but was shortlisted for the 2016 Edgar Award (best pbk original), the 2015 Ned Kelly Award, the 2016 Anthony Award (best pbk original), the 2016 Audie Award,was a Boston Globe "Best Book of 2015" and an Irish Times "Best Crime Novel of 2015." So there. No movie version in the offing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Hemingway's House






















my much requested 2008 article on visiting Hemingway's house rescued at last from behind The Sunday Times's paywall. I imagine things have changed quite a bit since I was there and hopefully things are better now from an economic and curatorial standpoint
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The secret policeman wasn’t smiling. It just looked like that because his false teeth didn’t fit correctly. I was relieved. If Isaac Babel is to be believed it’s when secret policeman start grinning at you that you should begin to worry.
            “Think about it,” he said as he ran his fingernails along the right lapel of a navy double breasted blazer that was miles too big for him. His eyes were dark and squinty and his skin was yellowy white. He was small and grey haired and admittedly not terribly menacing.
            “I’m sorry?” I said, unsure that I had heard him correctly.
            He repeated his offer. “Any book in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars,” he said in carefully annunciated English.
            I nodded to show that I had understood his proposition.
            I had spent the last twenty minutes examining the library in Hemingway’s Havana house - the Finca Vigia. There were thousands of books: first editions, engineering text books, old atlases, older dictionaries, galleys mailed to Hemingway for blurbs, review copies, gifts; many of them had been doodled over by Hemingway himself and several were extensively underlined and annotated. A bruised early copy of The Sun Also Rises was probably worth a couple of thousand and at the bar of the Ambos Mundos a man had told me that somewhere in these stacks was a signed Catcher in the Rye which I knew I could flog on eBay for at least fifty grand.
            The secret policeman tapped his foot, leaned backwards and placed his left hand on a cheetah skin which had been draped over a sofa. He patted it gingerly, like an underconfident Bond villain.
            The cheetah interested me. In his seminal 1958 Paris Review interview George Plimpton had described Hemingway’s house in Havana, and this room in particular, with meticulous detail. “The walls are lined with white painted bookcases from which books overflow to the floor...Hemingway stands when he writes in a pair of oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu.” Opposite the writing desk and directly in Hemingway’s field of view Plimpton noted “an armoire with a leopard skin draped across the top.”
Apart from the books, papers, bull fight posters and letters, Hemingway’s home was dominated by hunting trophies. Plimpton observed dead animals everywhere - skinned, mounted, stuffed and yet more carved from wood and ivory. He also found random bags filled with shotgun shells and carnivore teeth. But nowhere does he mention a cheetah. Heminway’s writing desk is still opposite the armoire but strangely Plimpton’s leopard skin has metamorphosed into the hide of a cheetah. The animals are difficult to mistake. Their pattern of spots, heads, and bodies are completely different and this beast currently being drummed upon by the secret policeman’s chubby fingers was definitely a cheetah not a leopard.
            Two possibilities presented themselves to me: either Plimpton had got it wrong about the leopard and the creature he had seen was in fact a cheetah or, more intriguingly, the skin had been replaced.
            “Are you English?” the secret policeman asked.
            “Uh...yeah...close enough,” I said.
            “I thought so. Ok, my friend, not two hundred. One hundred and fifty dollars for any book in his library. For an Englishman. Seventy five pounds.”
             I realized now that he had thought my silence a negotiating tactic. I attempted to disavow him of that notion. “Look, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know about this at all. I’m not sure if it’s...I actually think I have to go.”
            Que?”
            “I need to go back to my hotel.”
            “Why?” he asked.
            “Well, uhm, well, I need to go to the toilet for one thing,” I said with grave finality. I thought that would be the end of the matter. In the British Isles no one sober uses the word “toilet” unless they are quite desperate. In polite company it is taken as a sign that you are uncomfortable and at the mention of the word any decent host will allow you to escape with dignity.
            This nuance however was lost on the Cuban secret policeman
            “Go here. We have a W.C. Through there,” he said.
            I had no choice and in fifteen seconds I was in Ernest Hemingway’s famous water closet. Famous at least for biographers because it was here that he had kept a weight journal on the bathroom wall through various periods in the late fifties. Ahead of his time in many things, Hemingway had also gotten body consciousness a couple of decades before other American males.
            I was not terribly impressed. In William Faulkner’s house Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, I remember vividly examining a plan of Faulkner’s story ‘A Fable’ sketched on a wall. It was fascinating and wonderful, allowing you a peak into Faulkner’s mind at work.
            But this was not wonderful. This wasn’t what I wanted from macho, bold, Ernest Hemingway. This was self obsessed and weak. Depressing. I looked at the parade of figures and the scrawly explanations next to them: “210 pounds,” “215 pounds after drinking”, “205 pounds after diet.”
            I stopped reading after a time and instead began wondering how I was going to avoid the attentions of the secret policeman. Could I climb out the window and if so, what then? 
            There seemed to be no way out and I found my mind drifting back to the cheetah.
            Could the studious George Plimpton had erred about the beast’s correct species? Not impossible by any means. A dead leopard is the iconic image in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro so dead leopards were probably on Plimpton’s brain as he walked around the Finca Vigia avoiding Hemingway’s dozens of cats and listening to Ernest go on about how he used to play the cello and how King Lear cheered him up.
            With so much to take in many observers certainly could have misidentified the cheetah but Plimpton’s description of Hemingway’s foot rest as a lesser kudu made me think that he probably was very careful about what he wrote in the Paris Review and he probably got the species right.
            Perhaps the leopard had simply gotten moldy and been chucked out, but much more likely, a western collector had offered top dollar for ‘Ernest Hemingway’s Leopard’ and the Cuban authorities had sold it, replacing it with a cheetah, hoping that no one would ever notice.
            Well I had noticed and I wasn’t-
            “Come on, English,” the secret policeman growled.
            I left the toilet without flushing and went back to the hacienda. It was already becoming quite familiar. I’d been in here for what seemed like forever. Supposedly the Casa Hemingway is off limits to all but VIP visitors and even those aren’t allowed to manhandle anything, or, heaven forbid, read his books without gloves, or touch his furniture. Michael Palin has written humorously about his attempt to sit in Hemingway’s chair and how he was screamed at and nearly attacked by the Finca Vigia’s curators.
            But now I saw that all this superficial care and respect was for only for show and only when the cameras were rolling. As in any good plutocracy all goods and services were for sale. If you want to sit in Hemingway’s chair (the chair he never sat in, because, as Plimpton explained, he wrote standing up) it’ll cost you about ten dollars. And if you want to wander around Hemingway’s house and look into his beautiful library, just come at closing time and bring greenbacks, or better still, Euros...
            I had come late on a drizzly Tuesday in November 2007. I’d been a little worried because Lonely Planet Cuba informed me that if it was raining it was inadvisable to go to the Finca Vigia. Since no one was allowed into the house anymore because of petty theft the only way to see the interior was through the open window shutters and when it was raining the curators closed the shutters (though cunningly still charging you full price to get into the grounds).
            I had arrived just as a party of tourists were finishing their desultory exterior circuit of the house. In dreadful Monty Python English a bearded, gesticulating, sandal-wearing, Cuban tour guide was saying something about “Ava Gardener” or maybe “the garden” or “gardenas.”
            “Am I too late?” I asked one of the half dozen female curators as she began closing up for the night. 
            “Si, it is finished,” she said gloomily.
            “Oh dear, well, thank you,” I replied.
            I caught a quick glimpse of Hemingway’s bed and a few animal heads before the shutters on the east side of the house were closed.
            It was getting dark now and despite what I thought were fairly explicit instructions my taxi driver had taken off, so, suppressing my native reticence, I jogged to the mini bus and asked politely if they could give me a ride back to Havana. The tourists were up for it, but the guide said it was not possible for reasons of “insurance” or possibly “insolence” or “intransigence.” 
            I walked back to the house.
            When Hemingway had purchased the “Lookout Farm” in 1940 with the proceeds of For Whom the Bell Tolls the neighborhood of San Francisco de Paula had been a genteel village just outside of the city. Now San Francisco de Paula is a typical Havana suburban slum. Backed up sewers flow in the streets, the sidewalks are crumbling, pigs root in the gutters and children are to be seen combing trash heaps for anything remotely sellable. 
            On the way there taxis, indeed motor vehicles of any kind, seemed few and far between and the idea of  a long and complicated walk back to Havana in the rain was not appealing.
            I caught the eye of another of the female curators.
            “Can I, uh, can I possibly use your phone?” I asked her in a stuttering Hugh Grant voice which I hoped would assure her that I was not a local deadbeat and had in fact come a long way to see this place. As indeed I had, not as far as Notting Hill, but to fly to Cuba from Denver, you still have to go through either Mexico City or Montreal. I have tried both routes and both have their detriments. In Montreal you must put up with a plane load of salivating, obese, Québécois sex tourists and via Mexico City the Cuban authorities subject you to the indignities of a full body and luggage search to make sure you are not attempting to undermine the Revolution with subversive copies of Mexican Vogue or People en Espanol.
            “No, senor, no phone,” the female curator said looking behind her at a shadowy figure inside the house.
            I stood outside in the rain for a while, watching small yellow parrots shit on each other. Sadly this activity loses its luster surprisingly quickly.
            “Back to Havana then,” I said to myself and was about to brave the rooting pigs, scavenging children, and potential ne’er do wells when a short man in an enormous suit approached from somewhere behind my left ear.
            “Excuse me,” I said, startled.
            He nodded with satisfaction. Clearly he was well practiced at getting into people’s blind spots and disarming them with his ill fitting teeth.
            “Good morning,” he said in English and to be fair in England at this time it could have been in the wee hours. 
            “Hello,” I said.
            He offered his hand and I shook it, his jacket sleeve enveloping my wrist like that of a Neapolitan pickpocket.
            “You are an admirer of Comrade Hemingway?” he asked.
            “Yes.”
            “Come inside.”
            “Oh...thank you.”
            “Twenty dollars.”
            I removed my wallet from my jeans pocket and presciently kept it out.
            The house was extraordinarily beautiful. Except perhaps for the cheetah, it had been preserved almost exactly the way it had been when Hemingway had left it in 1959. Disarmingly compact and all on a single floor, even on this rainy day it radiated light, airiness and comfort. Blue tiles in the kitchen, a living room jam packed with books and period magazines, an old comforter on the bed. Borges once said that “paradise would be a kind of library” and but for all the dead African animals this would have been a kind of paradise.
            At first the secret policeman had been content to let me wander, but then he had hit upon the idea of bonus charges.
            Ten bucks for a photo sitting at Hemingway’s desk.
            Five bucks for a photo under the ibex head.
            Another ten for a browse through the library.
            The female curators - serious young women in their twenties - were too cowed to interfere but I could sense their disapproval and after a while I was itching to go.
            “Well thank you very much for showing me around and letting me look through the books, it was great,” I told him. 
            But that’s when the short, sallow-faced secret policeman had come out with his extraordinary offer. I could have any book, any book at all, in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars.
            An initial covetousness flooded through me. The first editions were what appealed most, especially ones by Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and perhaps if I looked hard enough I’d find that legendary inscribed Catcher in the Rye “Ernest, here’s remembering that time we spent liberating the Ritz bar, your buddy, Jerry.”
            Yes, it was tempting, but it wouldn’t do. How could I help break up this incredible library? What kind of a human being would I be? It would be like trading in plundered Nazi loot. Obviously I was not the first person the secret policeman had approached and apparently he had met with success before now, but, unfortunately for him this wasn’t my thing at all. Morally, legally and karmically it was all wrong.
            I made my bathroom excuse and on Hemingway's loo I had a good, long think and when I returned I knew that my mind was made up.
            “No. I’m sorry. I don’t want any books at all,” I said.
            The secret policeman made a fist, gave the cheetah a friendly bonk on the noggin and then, guiltily, he looked across the room at the curators. It was well after five thirty now and officially the Vigia was closed. They wanted to go home too but they knew better than to kick up a fuss. Still they must have been cramping his style because he gave them a curt dismissal with a wave of the hand.
            “One hundred dollars,” he hissed when they had gone. 
            “No, look, I’m sorry, I’m not negotiating, I really don’t want any of the books,” I said.
            The secret policeman frowned. “A hundred dollars, Englishman,” he said. “For an admirer of Comrade Hemingway that is nothing. Any book in the library for a hundred dollars. Fifty pounds.”
            “Please understand, I’m not trying to haggle with you, I just don’t want to do it. Thank you for the offer but I really don’t want to take one of Hemingway’s books,” I said.
            The secret policeman stared at me for a long time, sighed heavily and eventually pointed to the door next to the kitchen.
            I made a beeline for it and one of the remaining curators let me out.
            I walked down the muddy driveway that led to the street and of course my taxi driver was waiting for me, having just slipped away for a moment to get some cheap Venezuelan gas.
            It was pitch black as we drove through San Francisco de Paula. Cuba may have one of the best health care systems in Latin America, but it’s street lighting evidently did not extend very far into the suburbs of Havana.
            Once we were back into the Habana Vieja, however, it was a different story. There the bright lights reveal a much sadder set of circumstances than even the sordid little scene at Hemingway’s house.
            After dark the streets of Old Havana fill up with prostitutes and most of them seem to be barely into their teens. Their clients are European and Canadian and a few American men in from the cruise ships or package tours. Apologists for the Castro brothers talk about Cubans uncomplicated attitudes towards sex and money. Why not get paid for a night with a stranger when both parties gain from the experience? We Westerners, they say, are so hung up on morality that we are suspicious of the free-spirited, lusty Cubans.
            It’s nonsense of course. It’s nothing to do with Latin expansiveness and Western repression. It’s about a disastrously managed economy, endemic corruption, poverty, desperation and hunger.
            I reflected that the secret policeman too back at Finca Vigia was probably as much a victim as a practitioner. If he was willing to risk prison for a measly hundred bucks he must be in dire straits.
            My taxi driver left me near the pedestrian walkway known as the Prado and I ambled back to the Hotel Sevilla. Damp thirteen year old girls in denim skirts and high heels were hanging out under street lights while their pimps solicited me from bicycles.
            After a dozen “no gracias” and a couple of “fuck offs” I got back to the stately hotel where Graham Greene had written Our Man in Havana.
            I went upstairs to my room and sat on the edge of the bed.
            My head was light. The bitter taste on my tongue was adrenalin. Clearly, the pimps and the whores and the sad secret policeman and Hemingway’s melancholy toilet had unsettled me.
            I opened my journal. 
            “I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote.
            I thought it would be funny but there on the cool white page, in black ink, it wasn’t.
            When the inevitable adrenalin crash came I went down to the bar and had a couple of Mojitos. Those didn't help either. I was feeling very depressed. I went back to my room and lay down on the bed.
            The secret policeman was wrong, I’m not English, I’m Irish, and unlike our cousins over the water we have a weakness for sentiment and pathos.
            Tears filled my eyes. After a while I picked up the journal again. “I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote, “and I don’t feel good about it at all.”