‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Brasserie Zédel, Picadilly, London

It was our 31st wedding anniversary, and the brief was to go somewhere romantic. Brasserie Zédel certainly was. It’s an Art Deco beauty; the food is wonderful and the service is faultless.

Zédel

We went on a day when London was, bizarrely, patrolled by armed police and soldiers, following the sick atrocity in Manchester. The guns didn’t seem to worry most Londoners and tourists. The brasserie is just outside Picadilly Circus tube station; you go through a bar/ café, down into the depths and into what was a hotel ballroom. It’s just lovely. I couldn’t take photos that would do it justice. Look at the website: Brasserie Zédel. From where I was sitting, it reminded me of Manet’s painting of the bar at the Folies Bergere, but it’s far lovelier.

We splashed out, but there are some very good fixed price menus. Mrs O, with her customary sense of adventure, had frogs’ legs, with a garlic mayonnaise, which were excellent, then chicken in a champagne sauce, which was even better. I had a delicious fish soup, with rouille (a sauce of chilli peppers, garlic, etc.) and gruyère. This was outstanding, the rouille adding a lovely tang. My confit duck with lentils was good but not outstanding; to be honest, lentils are not really my thing, and I just find them uninspiring after the first few mouthfuls. We had the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, a very appropriate and enjoyable white.

Dessert was outstanding. We both had Café Gourmand: a trio of lemon tart, with a lovely crunchy top, a rhubarb crème, and a chocolate roulade, with a cafetière of coffee (just coffee, none of your cappuccino latte frappé thingies). Oh, and a Cointreau. Just to show that lunchtime drinking is not yet dead.

The waiting staff are just remarkable (especially in a restaurant with apparently 300 seats.) I have never, ever had such good service. They were polite, helpful and attentive without being pushy. I get the feeling that they treat everybody, from business lunchers to tourists to middle-aged couples celebrating their anniversary with the same courtesy.

The cost for us was just over £100, with service; however fixed prices start at £9.75. This was an unforgettable meal for us. We strolled out into the London sunshine, rather sleepy, to see the Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain. (A curate’s egg. Don’t worry if you missed it.) We recommend Brasserie Zédel without such reservations.

(I have shown one picture from the website, without knowing any copyright issues; I will of course remove it if there are any problems.)

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald

I picked this up from a charity stall. The basic premise: Sara, from Sweden, visits a little town in America called Broken Wheel, and sets up a bookshop. Well, you can see why it appealed.

It is apparently a New York Times bestseller and is translated from the original Swedish.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Some time ago I decided only to read books written in English, but occasionally make an exception. I was happy to do so for this book, as I suppose it is best described as charming.

Sara is meant to be visiting Amy, who she has only ever corresponded with. Amy dies; Sara is left without a purpose to her visit. The town take care of her and she responds with the bookshop, thereby gently changing lives.

It is not primarily about the transformative power of books, although that does come into it. It’s more about people and everyday sorrows and kindnesses. Love of course plays its part, without overwhelming the rest of the plot. Characters are sympathetically drawn.

I suppose some might describe this as chick-lit, although I’m never quite sure what that means and wouldn’t see it as a derogatory term. My only slight reservation is that my edition is a ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ edition and has ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ Questions for Discussion. Yes, I could easily ignore that. I wouldn’t mind being in a Book Club, anyway.

To sum up; a gentle, pleasant read. Probably good for holidays. Or just for pleasure.

 

Boston Tea Party, Honiton

Boston Tea Party is a small chain of cafés in the South West. We visited the Honiton branch for breakfast on a Sunday. It is, as we trendy types say, jolly good.

It is located in what was presumably a Georgian shop in the High Street. It has wooden floors and somewhat varied wooden tables and chairs. In this respect it is like the Exeter branch, which we used to visit some years ago. (That may well have changed, but was quirky and equally lovely.)

I had Eggs Royale, on sourdough bread, with slices of radish. Sourdough is annoyingly overused, but it really worked with the eggs and salmon, as to my surprise did the radish. It was delicious. Mrs Oblique had Chorizo Hash, with spinach, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes and poached egg on top. It was equally delicious; we really couldn’t fault it. The coffee (proper filter coffee) was excellent. Miss Oblique as usual went for pains au chocolat and there was appropriate silence while she ate them.

What’s not to like? Nothing. The rest of the menu looks varied but not over-long, and it all involves a large proportion of locally sourced ingredients. The atmosphere is relaxed and the staff are friendly, polite and attentive but not pushy. If you sit at the front there is a pleasant view of the street and the non-conformist churchgoers opposite. There is a garden at the back. The customers are a mix of regulars and visitors. I commend it!

BTP

Footnote: I notice that BTP now have 19, soon to be 20, cafés. I hope they maintain their independent feel. Catch them now! (No, of course they don’t sponsor me…..)

Boston Tea Party

BTP Honiton

Of Sigils and Quidditch, or Lord Voldemort meets the White Walkers

To my surprise, I find myself admitting that, on the whole, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a Good Thing. They have enthused and excited a whole generation of readers. Many of those readers have been motivated to read at a level of complexity and difficulty far beyond what they would otherwise attempted. As far as I know, this is still going on.

There are drawbacks. Some children were daunted by them and thus given a further negative outlook on reading. I know that some parents pushed their children to read the books, because they felt it was a Good Thing, and that this had a very negative effect. There is a fine line between encouragement and pressure. However, I also know that some parents read the books to or with their children- a Very Good Thing. (Miss O. #1 says that my reading ‘The Hobbit’ to her was her gateway drug to reading. Nothing makes me prouder.)

(Probably some of the original Harry Potter generation are reading the books to their own children. I just hope this doesn’t lead to the Roald Dahl problem; at one point he was being read and promoted to the exclusion of new authors.)

I read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ when the series was starting to achieve a popularity beyond its initial cult following (but before the films). I enjoyed it, although I thought I detected echoes of ‘The Worst Witch’. I have read the lot and have one major reservation: they are too long.

It’s probably heresy to say this, but I believe that Ms. Rowling needed a good editor. The first book was comparatively tautly written. I got increasingly bored with the series. Particularly I wish there was nothing about Quidditch, or at least much less; and I wish there were no references to snogging. They are tiresome. Quibbles aside, I would love to have an abridged version of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong; there are some moving and exciting episodes. Probably the very things I find uninspiring are the things young readers love. Butterbeer, anybody? Anyway, who am I to quarrel with such a success?

The title of the book in the picture may surprise British readers- presumably this is the American version.

Harry Potter Continue reading

A Quartet of YA Reviews

For those of you not aware, YA stands for Young Adult: a genre which seems to have made a significant impact recently. Just for the record, I am definitely not a young adult. These books were lent to me by Miss Oblique #1, who as my devoted followers will know, is a young lady of discernment and taste. Nevertheless, I probably would have read stuff like this when I was a young adult, and I find them absorbing.

It is an interesting debating point as to what makes them specifically Young Adult. (Note the capitals.) All these books are really fantasy; I won’t bother to justify the worth of that genre, but refer you to Terry Pratchett’s essays in ‘A Blink of the Screen’. The plots are complex; the writing is of good quality. I suppose a major point is that all the protagonists are young adults. There is some romance, but any sex is understated. I don’t want to over-analyse; they are just good reads.

My reviews are mercifully brief.

‘Wolf by Wolf’ by Ryan Giraudin

3This is an alternative history fantasy. Germany won World War 2. Hitler is still alive. Every year, the youth of Germany and Japan compete in a trans-continental motorcycle race. Yael, a concentration camp survivor and part of the resistance movement, takes the place of a previous winner in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

The book alternates sections in the “present” of the race with sections about the “past” of the concentration camp and what followed. The race parts are believable and engaging. The past is moving and chilling; somehow the fictionalisation makes it very realistic, though I realise I could not possibly imagine the horror of the real historical sources.

Apart from the setting, there is a specific fantasy element, which is surprisingly plausible, and an excellent twist. A sequel, ‘Blood for Blood’, has been published and I look forward to reading it. Recommended.

‘Guns of the Dawn’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky

4This looked pretty standard fantasy fare, but is more impressive. It is set in an alternative world, where a war is raging between the “revolutionaries” of Denland and the monarchists of Lascanne. Eventually women are called up, and the heroine, Emily Marshwic, joins the fighting in the swamps of the Levant. Again there is a specific fantasy element, the “Warlocks”, who are magicians, given their power by the royal touch, who use fire against the enemy.

The contrast between Emily’s genteel home life and the environment of the war is done well. The characters are believable, although some may be a little stereotypical: the fat quartermaster, the “shell-shocked” officer. The plot has some good surprises, with some good political elements and a satisfyingly unpredictable outcome. Parallels with real warfare and history are present, although not over-stated. Romance is portrayed as being complicated, as it usually is.

My only real problem was with the battle scenes. I lost interest in the details; judging from review extracts, I am unusual in this view, and Miss O. tells me it’s a given of this type of book.

It’s great. All along, one has the suspicion that the war and the political situation may not be all they seem, but the denouement is gradual and absorbing.

‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

1This is the sequel to ‘Six of Crows’, a surprisingly good novel again set in a fantasy world, with a limited number of other fantasy elements: powers (exercised by individuals called Grisha) such as tidemaking and healing. There are echoes of Holland in the city where it is set. In the first book, Kaz Brekker, a thief and criminal, assembled a team to trace the source of jurda parem, a substance that magnifies the powers of the Grisha unimaginably. He was double-crossed; now his spy (and suppressed love interest) Inej has been kidnapped and he is being sought by various interested parties. He wants revenge and wants her back. So far, so ordinary? It’s of course more complicated than that, with intricate deals and political intriguing.

I found this as good as the first novel. It’s a believable world, and the “special powers” theme is not overdone. I found the ending moving and there was the suspicion of a tear in my eye. I’m no expert on this genre, but I feel this could comfortably be characterised as a mainstream fantasy novel, rather than specifically Young Adult. It’s probably best to read ‘Six of Crows’ first.

(Note: Miss O. says that the other novels set in this world are not as good.)

‘Traitor to the Throne’ by Alwyn Hamilton

2This is the second book of a trilogy; I have reviewed the first (Rebel of the Sands- Alwyn Hamilton) and raved about it. I had really looked forward to this one, and saved it until the end of this quartet of Miss O. loans. Again, it’s a fantasy world, with other fantasy or “magical power” elements. I admit to being just a little disappointed. Possibly I had over-anticipated. I found there was too much re-establishing of the plot at the beginning and there were too many names, although not to the extent of some adult fantasy. (Can anybody remember all the characters in ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’?) Occasionally the magic powers were employed a little erratically; surely you can defeat anything with such forces? However, once it got into its stride it was captivating and I look forward to the sequel.

Footnote

I suppose underlying this post is a question: why shouldn’t adults read YA books? It’s probably obvious that my answer is that there is no reason at all, just as there is no reason why adults should not read children’s literature.