Monday, 28 December 2009

Naked Lunch

by William Burroughs.

Yes, enough of all this seasonal warmth and good cheer, let's have something scary, transgressional, fucked-up and apocalyptic.

Read it as a teenager, one of those rites of passage, experimental reads, the cover of which shows how big and clever you are when you open it on the bus. I was desperate to read this after Maddie at sixth form college mentioned it with a shudder. She'd had a visceral reaction to it. "Couldn't finish it" she explained "It made me puke."

To be honest, I can't remember much about it - it's his fevered, disjointed imaginings about the junkie milieu and is paranoid, conspiracy theory, hallucinatory stuff, but he was a genius, no question. He also got away with shooting his wife dead - they were playing William Tell, (as you do), and the bullet went astray.

The book that made more of an impression on me was called Queer, about the pains of getting over someone (whilst simultaneously trying to kick heroin.) Incredibly painful and raw. Nowadays I steer away from this kind of downbeat material - when you're younger I think you are more resilient about reading dark things, maybe because you have less experience of real darkness in the world.

Anyway, I'm way behind with leaving these on the tube, I keep forgetting. Any suggestions for others places I could leave them gratefully received...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Color Purple

Alice Walker

Why do you want to read all that... that Women's Studies bollocks? said one of my friends at Uni (who was strictly all about Modernism, Post Modernism, and doomy Russian novelists)'s so worthy. More on that later.

Bit of a wrench letting this one go, but recycling the ones that will always stay in print and are easy enough to get hold of, is the whole point of this anyway.

Worthy. Well... The book is about poverty, oppression, its heroine is a poor black woman. If that's something to sneer at, then yes, it is worthy. It's also about redemption and is fabulously optimistic and life-affirming. I love it that she quotes Stevie Wonder, rather than some high-falutin' literary quote at the beginning, to make her point "Show me how to do like you" - that you can refuse to be a victim and can transcend your circumstances, as long as you have someone to love and to inspire you.

Monday, 30 November 2009


Bernard MacLaverty

He's a very sensitive, thoughtful writer - this is about a young boy mixed up with the IRA who falls for the widow of a murdered policeman - but must confess, it ended up on my shelves because we fell for John Lynch in the film... Helen Mirren played the widow. You couldn't blame him.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Crow Road

Iain Banks

Famous for opening line "It was the day my grandmother exploded."

Remember the Wasp Factory? One of my favourite books. This is not the Wasp Factory - not so harsh, and considerably more rambling, but containing those familiar Banksian themes - family secrets, memory, madness, eccentricity, sibling rivalry, incest, growing pains of adolescence...

Ah yes, and the most romantic sex scene ever, involving a novel use for Morse Code.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

How I Live Now

Meg Rossoff.
Right then. This towering pile of books is not going down, so must crack on, and be ruthless.

This is one of those teen/grownup crossover novels, but you wouldn't be embarrassed to be caught reading it on the tube, it contains some mighty fine prose and a great, gripping story, and a reasonable cover for a grownup to be seen with.

It imagines what would happen if war, proper war, broke out in jolly old England. Daisy, the American heroine, comes to live with her English cousins in the countryside, just before the world goes into meltdown. It's absolutely convincing, and a bit disconcertingly prescient about the crackdown on civil liberties by the government, and for a youngsters' book, quite erotic (Daisy and her first cousin fall in love and shag like bunnies til the war separates them.)

It really hit a nerve, because I read it flying to Spain on the very day that terrorists decided to blow up the tubes and the buses in London. Powerful stuff.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Rip it up and start again

by Simon Reynolds.

(Flashback, circa 1982, I'm 11 years old & transfixed, watching Orange Juice on Top of the Pops... 'Rip it up and start again' sings Edwyn Collins. 'I wish he would' comments my dad from the other end of the sofa, in classic dad fashion.)

It's a really good book from rock's Most Serious Writer - he's forgotten more obscure bands than you ever knew existed - all about that time between the end of the punk and the beginnings of the new Romantics. Someone will like to find this - won't they? I wish someone would find one, even if they don't comment here. *

* Do you reckon the staff in TFL lost property office sit around reading the lost books, trying on the lost gloves, twirling the abandoned umbrellas and playing the discarded tubas that are left on the tube? I hope so, it would make me happy to think someone's reading them.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Scapegoat

by Daniel Pennac. A rare French book (in translation by the fantastic Ian Monk, who translated Georges Perecs' novel without the letter E into English) in that it is not miserable.

Haven't read many, but most of the French books I've read are melancholy, downbeat, bleak, dismal, gloomy, mournful, hopeless, dispiriting, discouraging, disheartening. Depressing, in other words. It's not real literature, they seem to think, unless you want to slit your wrists afterwards.

Par example... j'accuse Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse (see?); Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea; Albert Camus, The Stranger; Alain Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes; Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince; ÉmileZola, Thérèse Raquin and Nana... even Colette, who starts off quite jolly and saucy with the Claudine novels, gets all melancholy and unneccessary as she gets older.

Thanks be for Goscinny and Uderzo (Asterix books that make you laugh) and Anaïs Nin (for shameless filth.)

Oh, and Daniel Pennac, who writes fast, funny, ridiculous crime novels set in Belleville. He won't put up with any melancholy nonsense.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche.

Had a moustache; died, raving, of syphilis. And that's just off the top of my head, no doubt there was more to him than that.

I must have read this at some point but have little recollection - let us open some pages at random...

There is a great ladder of religious cruelty with many rungs...

What, at bottom, is the whole of modern philosophy doing? Since Descarte - and indeed rather in spite of him than on the basis of his precedent - all philosophers have been making an attentat on the ancient soul concept under the cloak of a critique of the subject-and- predicate concept - that is to say, an attentat on the fundamental presupposition of Christian doctrine...

Just think, somebody had to translate that from German too. Perhaps you could read it and summarise for me, dear reader. I think the days when I could concentrate on proper writing & in -depth thinking are long gone.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Outsiders

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home...

Hmm, time to put away childish things. Though I did love the Outsiders and all the rest of SE Hinton's books about tough-but-sensitive manboys from the wrong side of the tracks. Pure teen fantasy - she swiftly despatches the boring grownups by making her heroes orphans, and cunningly writes from the boys' point of view to attract the boy readers whilst making them all cute to attract the girl readers. (Though she's pretty tough on her female characters, who are all faithless heartless femme fatales,there's more than a hint of homoeroticism in the whole setup. Mind you, teenage girls love a bit of homoeroticism - see also My Beautiful Laundrette, Interview with A Vampire, etc etc.)

It's easy to tease, but it's so well meant, and some of it still rings true.

I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them there was still good in it, and they wouldn't believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem, to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Lord of the Flies

William Golding.

We're really mining the classics here. One look at that pig's head on the cover and I'm straight back in that secondary school classroom, rolling eyes at Claire about what a hopeless old lech is our English teacher, Mr Y, and sneakily carving VS's initials into the desk with my protractor.

Why do they make you read Lord of the Flies at school? Not that it's not a very good book, but is it the teacher's revenge on kids, seeing that its message is that Humans Are Essentially Bad and Evil, especially the supposedly innocent youngsters who'd roast you and eat you, given the right conditions? (I saw William Golding give a talk once at college, he said he'd written it because he'd gotten so fed up with these Swallows and Amazons type books about happy children having a lovely time on holiday. Kids, he said, are just as rotten and horrible as the rest of us.)

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Bell Jar

"Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed."

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

So, Sylvia Plath, beloved of moody teenage girls since all time. The short autobiography: compulsive A grade all American (if slightly fucked up) girl goes to Cambridge, falls in love with Ted Hughes, has babies, knocks out some genius poems, sticks her head in the gas oven and is turned into feminist martyr forevermore.

I took the Bell Jar very very seriously as a girl, and it is quite a powerful story of someone going off their rocker, written with a poet's feel for language. But reading it as a grownup, it's the black humour I enjoy, and didn't see at all at the time.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


If you found this one you get a bargain, as it has my (highly pretentious) teenage dissertation notes in the margin. And pictures of Edie Sedgwick. We thought we were worthy of the Factory, back in the day, and that Lou Reed would have written songs inspired by us...

Andy Warhol's World and His Films by Stephen Koch