Saturday, January 30, 2010

HOOKING UP - Tom Wolfe

Is Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese the best journalist that has ever lived?

After reading this collection of works from Tom Wolfe, I've put him ahead on points,just.

In this book we have nine essay's, a novella and a re-print / recollection of a parody on the The New Yorker Magazine.

The subjects covered in the essay's are fantastic.

We have an article on Robert Noyce of semi-conductor fame, the co-inventor of the micro chip and founder of Intell.

We have an article on the sculpture Frederick Hart.

The price of admission is covered with these two bits of writing alone.

Then we have a re post to critical articles and comments by John Updyke, Norman Mailer and John Irving regarding Wolfe's novel A Man in Full. In this Wolfe argues that it is possible to write a great story and be popular at the same time, rather than a write a novel that is read by three elitists and then sinks without a trace.

And after reading Mr. Wolfe's argument it is very difficult to disagree. Its all about pretension he says and he has no time for it.

This loathing of pretension is also apparent in the essay on Frederick Hart, who was shunned by the artistic " elite" in New York because his work was too representative. Basically because people could actually see what it was he was ignored. The artistic movement had been hi- jacked by the modernists and post- modernists who had created their own little club that you had to conform to or you were out.

This is a fantastic collection and is highly recommended to anyone who has an interest in good writing.

XPD - Len Deighton

Nazi gold, British, Russian, American spy's and various crooks are the ingredients of this 1981 novel.

It's all pretty run of the mill stuff from Mr. Deighton who can be bit "hot and cold" with his spy stories.

Set in the 1970's we have several organizations looking for the "Hitler Minutes", documents that could be very embarrassing for Britain especially and tarnish the reputation of Winston Churchill forever.

There are the usual double crosses and machinations from the intelligence services that make the task of our hero, Stuart Boyd, next to impossible in solving the job put before him.

Unfortunately the story ends very limply. It is as if even the author got a bit bored and wanted to move onto something else.

So, not one of Deighton's best, but he has written some wonderful stories as well so don't ever be put off his work.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


After reading this for the second time, I can justifiable feel a bit miffed- because I think I am the only person on the planet that Gore Vidal has not met.

This is the second volume of memoirs from the 84 year old novelist, essayist and playwright.

It is totally fascinating and even though its name dropper heaven, the names are not dropped just for the sake of it. This is a man who through various marriages of his mother and other relations was born into the upper echelons of American politics.

He then, through his writing and film work met and associated with the biggest names in politics and entertainment in the 20th century.

He's stays with Princess Margaret and tells a couple of very funny anecdotes about her. There are numerous tales of the rich and famous and his interaction with them.

Running parallel to the public Vidal are very personal writings regarding his private life - his partner of 50 years, and his relationship with his parents.

He simply has met everyone, and even though I have been told a million times not to exaggerate myself, I am not in this case.

What was of particular interest was that although very liberal in his political thinking he never made a point of bringing his sexuality into it. He is homosexual but according to him, whether gay or straight this is the private business of the individual and not for public consumption.

I just hope that this man has kept a diary over the course of his wonderful life, if he has it will equal at the very least James Lees-Milne, another who managed to bump into a few people along the way.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

IN PHARAOH'S ARMY - Tobais Wolff

This not really a memoir of the Vietnam War , rather, it is the second memoir of Tobais Wolff who just happened to end up in the Vietnam War. Well , he ended up there because he volunteered but in the late 60's you weren't going anywhere else than Asia.

It is short and written 30 odd years after his service and it is great.

He has the knack of being extremely funny in the most gruelling circumstances.

A highlight is going to the trouble, with his sergeant, to steal a 25 inch colour television so they can watch..............a two hour Bonanza special.

But then after all this trouble he does something incredibly human and gives it away to a local who doesn't have TV and they have to watch Bonanza on a black and white set.

There is actually very little about fighting or war stuff like that in the book. There are only a couple of incidents re countered where he nearly lost his life but basically it concentrates on the boredom and futility of the whole thing.

He is proud to be there but he soon sees he's surrounded by idiots - mainly fellow officers. This is a constant in any book about the military, - the officers are fools- there must be something in this.

There is also a lot about his relationship with his father, who is a con man ex-convict. He spends a lot of time with him after his discharge from the army, and this is quit warming as the relationship has not been good due the fathers life style and what he has done to the family.

Lastly I wonder if Mr. Wolff has ever been able to buy another puppy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


If you like locked room mysteries or old fashioned crime stories with no gratuitous violence, you'll like this book.

Published in 1948, its from the 'golden age' of the crime novel. Clever plots revolving around a corpse that nobody in the novel is particuarly fond of - so there's no mourning or anything like that, just the unravelling of 'who dunnit'.

John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson or Carr Dickson or Roger Fairbairn was a prolific crime writer , he wrote approximately 70 crime novels, plus plays and short story collections.

This novel here features a corpse which of course has been murdered, with a plethora of murder weapons and suspects.

It is left up to ex-Surete master detective Henri Bencolin to solve it. This French detective is no where as annoying as the Belgium detective created by a contemporary of Mr. Carr's.

But solve it he does and it takes some figuring out.

The most interesting thing in the book is a card game called Basset, which is very rarely played due to the fact that it can ruin a punter very quickly. But the explanation and the card play itself are much better that anything Ian Fleming wrote in Casino Royale.

And lastly, this was first published in 1948 but the edition I have is a Great Pan published in 1961 and I just love the art work and the effort that went into the covers of these novels.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I admit I have a total weakness for anything Anthony Burgess has written, so all you will get here is praise for this novel.

Set in the first years of Christianity we have the story according to Burgess of the trials and tribulations of the Apostles counterpointed with the cruelties and depravities of Imperial Rome.

Paul is the central figure in the story but it switches over to events involving Caligula and Nero( a couple of very stable individuals!)

As well as a great story this is really well researched and there is a history lesson as well.

There is a definition of God in the first pages where the narration begins -
......perhaps his God was a metaphor of the only thing that will save the world - the exercise of decency, tolerance and humorous scepticism.

That would be the best definition/ explanation that I have ever heard.

As always with Burgess this is 'bloody good', its such a shame the majority of people only associate him with " A Clockwork Orange"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

SHALOM,JAPAN - Shifra Horn

The author wrote this after she was posted to Tokyo for five years with her husband. It was published in 1996 and is translated from the Hebrew.

What we have here is a very entertaining printed 'blog' of that time, consisting of her adventures and observations.

There are many laugh out loud moments. While new to Tokyo she was invited to a women's only lunch at which she had to use the toilet which looked - 'like the inside of a space ship'- is one. Even if there is is some exaggeration in what unfolded it must still have been an utter disaster. Its amazing how anyone could end up as dishevelled as she does .

The chapters cover aspects of Japanese life with the authors take on them -she covers : bathing, pornography , geisha's , Japanese hotels , food and humour- among others.

Her take on the Japanese sense of humour is the same as mine, - i.e it can be a bit bizarre.

We have a memoir which is not too judgemental, just a record of her time and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

This is not deep stuff - when she writes about bathing we don't have a three hundred page history of water - and that is not a bad thing, but it is enlightening because what is written about is what she experienced.

This is absolutely perfect for an Auckland - L.A flight or a really, really long bath. It won't put too many demands on your concentration but its a nice bit of education with no pretensions.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Charles Prentice goes to Spain to try and assist his brother who has been charged with the murder of five people.

To make thing even more interesting , although the brother has plead guilty, no one believes that he has committed these crimes.

So what we do is suspend belief and enter the world of J.G ( James Graham) Ballard. The Guardian newspaper has referred to him as having " A unique and profoundly original mind". This is rather a massive understatement.

After our belief suspension is firmly in place, we enter the life of a gated community catering to the early retirees from England and other European countries who have opted for the sun and sand of the Spanish coast.

Along the way we meet the doctor whose main duties consist of retrieving drug overdoses from the edge. The tennis pro who appears to run the place and several others who appear to be equally amoral.

The characters in this novel are truly creepy, as is the premise of the entire book. Dystopian is the word , but everyone seems to use it and as I have only known what it means for a couple of years I will resist.

What starts out as a 'who dunnit' soon turns into a ' why dunnit'.

Cocaine Nights is a fable about what can happen with unlimited leisure. The moral I got from this was ' work hard and respect your mother or really bad stuff will happen.'
A great read once you succumb to "Ballard's world".

Unfortunately Mr. Ballard is no longer with us having passed away in April 2009,we did indeed loose a ' profoundly original mind'

Friday, January 8, 2010


Published in 1955 this was the first work from J P Donleavy ( James Patrick) and hasn't been out of print since and has been described as a classic by others.

Its the mis-adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American living in squalor in Dublin.

Dangerfield is a drunken, lying, wife beating waster who to me has no charm whatsoever.

The initial part of the book concerns us with our 'hero' stealing the house keeping for drink,running up huge unpayable bills for drink and totally neglecting his family while doing so. Call me strange but I didn't see any hilarity in this.

Later he seduces a boarder who he uses for her money and then a younger woman with whom he settles down with somewhat. Although I don't feel there is any redemption, he just gets more cunning.

For its time it was considered risque and was initially banned in the U S and the Republic of Ireland; - because of its 'startling nature'.

Dangerfield comes across as just a sad,desperate individual and empathy I have none.

As far as characters in literature go, Dangerfield ranks up there with Ignatius Reilly from - A Confederacy of Dunces - as totally loathsome.

It may be just me though who lacks the sense of humour because I have seen - A Confederacy of Dunces - referred to as a comic masterpiece as well.

The character Dangerfield was evidently based on a friend of Donleavy's when he first moved to Ireland after the Second World War. This friend Gainor Stephen Crist died young of alcoholism.

Now, not liking the character does not mean this isn't really well written, it is and Donleavy has gone on and written hilarious novels. He is kicking along at 84 and gives the impression of being a very naughty boy still.

If starting to read Donleavy I would recommend the Darcy Dancer trilogy; no where near as depressing or as brutal as parts of this one are and truly funny.

VOODOO, LTD - Ross Thomas

The New York Times Book review has described Ross Thomas - as the master of the crime thriller.

They are exactly correct, nobody writes plots with the characters and humour of Mr.Thomas.

In this book we have Arty Wu and Quincy Durant ( WuDu Ltd) as Private Investigators who solve -big problems for big bucks - something they are a bit short of at the moment, bucks that is not problems.

They are hired to find two missing hypnotists who are needed to prove the innocence of a movie star charged with killing her ex-fiancee. All run of the mill stuff until things get a bit more complicated.

To complete the job they enlist several of their associates; - who happen to be terrorism experts, con men and con-women. None of these people have any scruples or morals , basically they are all crooks and this makes for a rollicking story set in southern California.

Like all of his books this rocks along with double crosses, triple crosses and other numerous twists which keep you busy to the end.

This is an absolute joy to read.

Also recommended are - The Eighth Dwarf and Twilight at Mac's Place.

Just as good as the novels written under the name Ross Thomas are several under the Pseudonym Oliver Bleeck.

Thomas's books are difficult to get in New Zealand, so any that you find are gems and to be looked after. There won't be any more as Mr. Thomas passed away in 1995.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


This is bloody good.

Its the first part of Anthony Burgess's autobiography set from his birth in 1917 until he believed he was dieing of a brain tumour in 1959. And as he says " I wasn't the spy Burgess."

"Confessions" in the sub-title is also apt, nothing is held back. Perhaps it was his Catholicism that made him so open, but what ever it was this is a fascinating read.

This Catholicism plays a large part in his life and it is always in the background and constantly referred to. This not to say he was a good Catholic, but like us all born one, once in never out.

He was brought up by a drunken father and an unloving stepmother after his natural mother died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. It was not a childhood of poverty however, he always had access to books, film and freedom as he was left alone for long periods.

As with all Burgess's books I needed a dictionary close at hand due to the fact I do not have his vocabulary but this is never a inconvenience due to the quality of the writing.

There is great humour throughout , especially when describing the ineptitude displayed by his officers during his service in the Second World War.

A great example of this being a 'memo' placed on a depot notice board instructing - "all illiterates to report for education classes at 8.00 pm."

Burgess's army stories show that Evelyn Waugh was not exaggerating with his tales of the fools in the officer class in the Sword of Honour trilogy.

The war reminiscence's are very insightful, telling how men sat around for years without any involvement in the war. Some were lucky enough to have nothing to do with it. the biggest danger they faced was boredom.

Another little gem for someone as shallow as myself is that according to Burgess, Welsh women are the sex machines of the UK. Useful information like this can be stored for a rainy day if the desire to pack up and head for the valleys ever comes over me.

Burgess followed his own beliefs here and married a Welsh woman whom he stayed married to and loved for 30 years until she succumbed to cirrhosis due to her alcoholism.

Both parts of the marriage were afraid of neither a drink or an affair. The marriage was open and many opportunities were taken by both.

On landing in Singapore en route to take up a teaching position in Malaya, Lynne, his wife was laid up in bed with exhaustion. So Jack,as he was then (John Burgess Wilson) goes for a wander out of the hotel and picks up a prostitute in Bugis Street.

Now as shallow as I am, this was a bit tacky and sad. But confessions its called and confessions we get.

It was in Malaya that he began writing, and I am very grateful that he did, because he is the greatest 20th century novelist. He inches out Evelyn Waugh because he took a few more risks and kept working. Burgess and Waugh both liked a drink but I think Waugh gave up writing prematurely and of course died young.

The only problem with this book is that it ends and I now have to go out and find part two.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

INHERENT VICE - Thomas Pynchon

How do you solve crimes after you have smoked 5 - 6 joints during the day? - or for that matter manage to brush your teeth.

This was the first question I asked myself as I got into this poor man's 'Chandler'.

The 'gumshoe' in this California 'noir' smokes his pot like Marlowe smoked cigarettes.

More power to him ,but it makes for pretty tedious reading when all he seems to do is 'flash up' the next number , then we get "stoned think", his stoned thoughts on God, the universe, the munchies and the case at hand.

I surmised that the early 70's California weed must have been very mild due to the amount he consumes and still stays upright. Perhaps if our hero, Doc Sportello, had been a bit straighter he may have sorted this very ordinary plot out quicker than the 366 pages it takes him.

Its a strange book set in about 1970. Why its set there I do not know,and there is no clue.

The constant references to the pop icons of the era - i.e Ginger and others from Gilligans Island -are just plain annoying. My age group may remember this stuff but to most younger people none of the television, music or movies constantly referred are well enough known to have any meaning.

At the end of the book, after many digressions, all we have is a story about heroin and bad guys. with Doc Sportello getting his chick back!

I don't know if Mr. Pynchon imbibes but it gives the impression of being written by a stoned person. Things start up all the time but never go anywhere.

This purchase wasn't a complete waste of $34 but close, a few laughs saved it from getting packed straight off to the church jumble sale.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

GOLDFINGER - Ian Fleming

I have just finished the " once every two years" read of the James Bond novels and have again come to the conclusion that Goldfinger is the best.

It has the best villain, the best story and what can you say, " Pussy Galore". To come up consistently with names of this calibre for female characters is an art in itself, remembering what a censored world these novels were born into.

Fleming can be snobbish in his writing and pedantic, as in a 1/2 page description of gear changes in a car Bond is driving but in this book we have a great story with the plan to rob Fort Knox.

This plan ( plot spoiler) is of course foiled by our hero but this is a real novel, one that has not been given the credit it deserves, probably because of its genre and the novels that proceeded it.

In my opinion this book followed by " On Her Majesty's Secret Service" were Fleming at his peak. As his health deteriorated and his dislike of writing these novels set in we were served up dross like "The Man With The Golden Gun", but with Goldfinger he nailed it.

There are many authors out there in authorland who would have liked to have written something as half as good as this.

Highly recommended for the rainy day Sunday when the bills are paid and the kids aren't stabbing each other

Monday, January 4, 2010


First published in Great Britain in 1966 this a series of short stories rather than a novel set in a New York neighbourhood.

The subjects covered in these stories are among other things, gang rape, domestic violence and prostitution - all real world stuff. We have gangsters, transvestites, alcoholics and worst of all a union shop steward.

Anthony Burgess in the Introduction calls this book " ..honest and terrible."...

It is brilliantly written, absolutely beautifully written but as stated most of the characters are quite repulsive. Words like gritty and realistic don't quite do enough to describe how raw this is in places. It sucks you in (no puns) and certainly gets emotional involvement, a sign that the author has achieved what he set out to do.

The book was the subject of an obscenity trial through 1967 to 1968 in the UK. In the edition I have the Foreword by the publishers post the Court case is a great read in itself. Its incredible how certain members of our society think they can make decisions for the rest of us pretending that its for our own good, when in fact its just a controlling mechanism - i.e. censorship .

The Prosecution attempted to prove that the book was obscene . The definition of obscene in this case being if it had a tendency to deprave and corrupt those into whose hands it was likely to fall. He defined to deprave - as to make people do wrong acts.

Now, this a very good book but after reading it, I have yet to join a gang, a union or have a same sex liaison. But then these things may take time, I suppose...

One prosecution witness , Sir Basil Blackwell , actually stated that the book had depraved him, but it was never established whether it was really the book or the fact that he may have attended a Public School.

The case was eventually won for the publisher by John Mortimer QC. Who later got the magazine OZ or its publishers acquitted after they were went to prison for obscenity as well. Evidently this is getting made into a movie Hippie Hippie Shake .

But that is another issue, this is about Last Exit to Brooklyn, it is a great book, just don't expect to feel warm and cuddly after finishing it.