Sunday, June 27, 2010

HITCH-22 - Christopher Hitchens

This is a fascinating memoir from the former far left journalist, who over the years has moved to the right but has not become a venerable old Tory, rather a 'secular liberal', which is not a bad place to be.

The book starts with a synopsis of his parents and his childhood. His mother who died young by her own hand and a father he was never that close to. He attended Oxford and appears to have spent the majority of his time protesting,arranging protests and finding causes that need some protesting.

He was at this stage what would appear to me to be rather an "insufferable little shit" but very,very clever non the less. He was from an early age exceptionally well read and probably brilliant, although his results at Oxford do not reflect this.

He is very honest about his university days certainly having no false modesty when he admits, he was an "very pretty young man" and was not adverse to a quick one off the wrist with any male who was attracted to him.

Through his early Marxist background he met most of the intellectual left in Britain and for many years was one of them.

Unlike most of the intellectual left Hitchens travelled to the country's that were hot spots of revolution and senseless violence rather than just sitting and talking theory and so gradually his views have changed. They have changed to the extent that he was a very vocal advocate of the invasion and over throwing of Saddam Hussein.

What I particularly liked about this is that there is no real black and white, Hitchens realises that our world is many shades of grey and he is honest enough to view both side of all issues before making a judgement.

He really has met a lot of remarkable people, Agatha Christie (anti-Semitic), was in Bill Clintons year at Oxford (he didn't inhale , but ate the dope, he was allergic to the smoke), a great friend of Martin Amis and his father and many many others.

This memoir is well worth the effort,but if you ever meet him for God's sake do not address him as Chris, he doesn't like this and he devoted several hundred pages to the fact (a slight exaggeration, and I have told you a million times not to do that).

He is now married and a resident and citizen of the United States, still writing, for Vanity Fair I am sure of and I think The Atlantic as well.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

CAKES AND ALE - W.Somerset Maugham

This novel from 1930 revolves around three novelists. It's is narrated in the first person by William Ashenden, who tells the tale of successful novelist, Edward Driffield's first wife Rosie. He relates the tale with all the facts given to the reader. In the book he gives only what detail he wants to to would be biographer Elroy Kear who is to write the life of Driffield.

The characters are a thinly disguised Thomas Hardy (Driffield) and Hugh Walpole (Kear).

Rosie, Driffields first wife is a free spirit who scandalised society with her friendships and in the way she eventually leaves Driffield. Ashenden has known the Driffields since he was a boy and is the only survivor knowing the full story of their marriage.

Along the way Maugham details the smugness and snobbishness of the English class system. As Rosie was a barmaid prior to marrying Driffield she is never seen as the "right sort" of person.

Through the book we have Ashenden telling the truth regarding all the relationships involved, with Kear riding over any negative information he comes across ,wanting just enough information to complete a hagiography to please Driffields second wife.

It is a story of infatuation with wonderful writing by Maugham, who is never shy about sharing an opinion.

I also discovered that Hugh Walpole was a New Zealander, being born in Auckland.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

CLOSING TIME - Joseph Heller

This is billed as the sequel to Catch 22, but even though it contains a few of the characters from the 1961 novel this is a stand alone event.

It is really two stories, one concerning the later stages of the life of John Yossarian and the other the adolescent to late middle age story of Sammy Singer and Lew Rabinowitz. The latter two grew up together in Coney Island, went to war together, with Singer a gunner on Yossarian’s bomber hence there is this tenuous link to Catch 22 throughout this.

It basically concerns the characters getting ready to die as they are all approaching the end of their lives. It deals with ,as Heller sees it, the decline in the America he knew growing up. His view is very cynical but we still have the trade mark humour which can make you laugh out loud at the absurdities of the politics and the greed and hypocrisy of American life, or anywhere for that matter.

It wanders off into sections of fantasy at times and I feel owes a lot to Slaughterhouse 5, particularly with the fantasy sections,Vonnegut actually makes an appearance in the novel.

So, a  funny, sad novel, nowhere near as good as Catch 22, but as Heller said often, nothing much is.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Just started my two yearly read of the James Bond stories something I really enjoy.

For Your Eyes Only is a collection of five stories featuring our man James Bond.

The stories are From a View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, Quantum of Solace, Risico and The Hildebrand Rarity

The writing in the story of For Your Eyes Only is Fleming at his best, he builds tension and develops characters even though the story is only 47 pages.

The Bond in these stories is a much more violent secret agent than he appears in the full length novels. Evidently these five stories were outlines for episodes of a proposed American television series featuring Bond which was canned prior to production.

Anyway, love the Bond books, not great literature but mighty fine entertainments and I've got the whole series to re-read over the next two years.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


From 1936 - When the body of a famous actress washes up on the coast of Kent it soon becomes apparent that it was murder and not the accident that it first appeared to be.

Called in to investigate is Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard who in the end manages to solve the mystery but not without some effort, maninly by others. He's not the most interesting Detective Inspector doing the rounds in murder mysteries but he was a work in progress when this was written, he reminds me of a very early Adam Dalglish in his mannerisims.

There are some great characters ,especially the Chief Constable's daughter -she is worth a story of her own.

The author knows how to amuse with a few laugh out loud moments and some great dialogue. Only a woman could have written about her sleuth walking up carpeted stairs trying to solve a murder and musing how difficult the stairs would be to clean.

Its not a great 'who dunnit' only because D.I Grant has very little to do with locating any of the evidence, but as it was only the authors second outing she can be forgiven. I have read that she got much better prior to her early death in 1952.

I love these ' golden age' of crime mysteries. They can be clever without graphic violence or the language that seems necessary in today's offerings.

I will read anything else I can find by Tey, but the trick will be finding them. This Pan edition I have is 44 years old.

They will be available from the U.S because the population allows a lot more work to stay in print.

Friday, June 11, 2010

THE GREAT ESCAPE - Paul Brickhill

The true story that inspired the movie.

This is the attempt to have 250 men escape at one time from Stalag-Luft III by creating three tunnels at once.

Due to circumstances only one was used and only 70 men escaped on the night.

Of these 70 only three actually made it back to England with 50 of them being rounded up by the Gestapo and murdered. The remainder were returned to this camp or to concentration camps.

The bravery and ingenuity of those involved is staggering. They constructed 250 compasses, moulding the casings from broken gramophone records and then adding needles and glass. The entire construction is detailed and is amazing.

They moved hundreds of tons of sand, made bellows for moving fresh air about, forged papers. All this was done by scrounging and stealing the required materials. Then the talents of the prisoners were put to use in making what was required.

This camp was the one where Eric Williams and colleagues escaped from and was immortalised in The Wooden Horse.

The author Paul Brickhill was also a prisoner at this camp at this time but he did not partake in the tunnelling or escape due to his claustrophobia.

This a a very moving tale of bravery and determination and another reminder why ANZAC Day is so important, - that we never forget -what previous generations have done for us.

This copy is a 1952 edition but I believe its still in print and widley available.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


One day mountaineer Joe Simpson was with a friend about to start a climb in South America and his mate said " No,forget it, I just retired". This friend then gave up climbing on the spot only to be killed a short time later paragliding!!!!!

After this happened Simpson started to believe in his own mortality and so with another friend started a list of climbs to complete and then when these were signed off the crampons were to be hung up.

So,in this volume we have a ice climb in the States (The Bridle Veil Falls at Tellirude )followed by an attempt at the north face of the Eiger.

Its a very exciting read, he builds the suspense that nicely that I have been put off driving past the Eiger let alone attempting a climb.

Included in his adventure is a lot of really interesting history concerning the climbs and the climbers,especially the 'iron men , wooden ship,' mountaineers of the 1930's.

Simpson is a professional adventurer with an obvious book contract to fulfill but it makes a difference that he can write.

I have read a previous title of his This Games of Ghosts and as I was then I still am - I would not get on the same train as Simpson simply because bad stuff will happen with him in the vicinity.

A good adventure yarn.

Monday, June 7, 2010

CRASH - JG Ballard

My god, this is vile.

We have from the 1995 introduction by Ballard to this 1973 novel......I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology.

Basically this revolves around a group of people that get off sexually around car crashes and the injuries they suffer.

As a feat of imagination its is amazing, but that's J G Ballard but many of the scenes are staggering in their baseness. He describes it as pornographic but there is nothing even shallowly exciting about it. Ballard must have been on a retainer for writing " natal cleft", if he was he made a fortune.

Vaughn the anti-hero is officially the most repulsive character in fiction, hands down there is no one even close and I would love to accept nominations.

An amazing writer but I couldn't wait to finish this. The introduction mentions metaphors that the novel is meant represent but I must be too thick to get any of it.

A truly horrible experience.

BORDERSNAKES - James Crumley

I have just had a great weeks reading and it was finished off nicely by Bordersnakes.

It features both of Crumley's P. I's in the same story, partnered up, there's C W Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch, both alcoholic, both drug abusers, both very nasty individuals.

Sughrue wants to find the person that shot him in the guts and Milodragovitch wants to find the person that stole his 3 million dollar inheritance. That's the story and both story lines are intertwined.

The only annoying bit is that's it's written in the first person and chops and changes between the two P.I.s, not a great trick to pull on your readers, Jim ( but he's dead now so he won't ever care what I think.)

It not very often that a entire novel is populated by totally unlikeable individuals but this is one of them, even our hero's aren't nice.

Its a normal Crumley, very violent and very well written, its not his best but a great rainy day read (and we have had a few lately).

The story ranges through 'dives' and various bedrooms of West Texas and L A and finishes south of the border.

A drug fueled adventure but a very very dark read.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

JUST KIDS - Patti Smith

This is Patti Smith's memoir of her friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

They meet as struggling 20 year old's in New York and set up house together in various locations, including the famous Chelsea Hotel.

They then go onto find success in their respective artistic endeavours. Smith as a poet and Mapplethorpe as an artist. Then Mapplethorpe contracts AIDS and dies as a 42 year old. Smith carries on and is presently releasing some of her best music as a 63 year old and counting.

The book is set between 1968 and 1980 with a introduction and closing chapter set around the death of Mapplethorpe.

She tells about the scene in New York in the early 70's and the rise of what would become the punk scene there as it concerned her and running parallel with this is Mapplethorpe's route to fame, which was sped up by his mentor and lover Sam Wagstaff.

This is more Smith's story obviously but for a 10 year period their two lives were totally entwined so there justification in her calling the book their story- the story of two 20 year old's forging their way in the world.

Its an interesting read, especially concerning the New York music scene. It reads like a monologue,( the third chapter runs 122 pages) it might be me but it has a talked to tape feel about it and then transcribed. This isn't a negative just the feel of the book.

There is a very good biography on Mapplethorpe- Mapplethorpe by Patricia Morrisroe- published in 1995 which is an excellent companion to this book.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Finally, 16 years after the publication of The Dark Stuff we have something new.

Apathy for the Devil is the seventies memoir of Kent, who at the age of 20 became one of rocks premier writers, touring with everyone, partying with everyone and ended up a homeless, broken junkie with nothing - all this in the space of 10 years.

It's a memoir of brutal honesty with his admitting he got too big for his boots way too fast and the smack got him.

He met everyone who was anyone in the 70's music scene and became a celebrity himself, usually due to his totally self destructive side which consumes him in the end. There are anecdotes too numerous to even bother mentioning but its all fascinating stuff.

Its great reading especially for the rock and roll trainspotter, but as Nick Kent is a seriously gifted writer its doubly good.

And this isn't a plot spoiler, he cleaned up and has been "Joe Persil" for 20 years. I am hopeful that this will get him writing a bit more, 16 years between efforts is a bit on the tired side.

A brilliant "must" read.

P.S The title comes from a throw away line spoken by Bob Dylan when asked for a comment regarding The Rolling Stones


Imagine a Sherlock Holmes story written by H G Wells and you pretty much have "The Waterworks", except its actually written by Doctorow, who is a much finer writer than Conan Doyle or Wells.

Martin Pemberton is walking along Broadway one day shortly after is father has died and he looks up and sees his father driving past in a carriage, and that sets the scene for this novel set in New York City shortly after the Civil War.

It is a very dark, sad story in that it puts all our human frailties out there to be considered, especially greed and vanity.

There is a good suspense yarn in here as well and there are uplifting moments to compensate for the dark stuff.

Its not Billy Bathgate or Ragtime but the man can write and any time reading E.L.Doctorow is time well spent.