January’s reading pile…

Snow ChairMy thanks to the television schedulers of Britain for allowing me a December and January almost entirely free of distractions from the joys of a good book. Now if we could only do something about the weather…

Elvis Costello – Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
Costello’s autobiography reveals almost more about the man than about the musician or the songwriter, but if you want to explore the hinterlands of such a rich song catalogue, this is an exhaustive tour guide. It could do with a little pruning, tbh, but it’s a fascinating insight into him, his view of the world – and especially his view of himself (to paraphrase one of his songs, I hope he’s happy now). His father’s impact is particularly telling, and the sections towards the end about his decline are very moving.

Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter
A mixed bag for me. Gale writes beautifully and smoothly, and his protoganist had me hooked from early on with its explorations of life as gay man in the Victorian era – and a shy, modest man at that. I thought that reading an imagined life of a real relative would bother me ethically – putting thoughts and actions in a dead man’s head, and so on – but I was able to mostly let that go. Some of the scenarios – and especially the therapeutic community scenes – seemed like a fictional leap too far for me, however, and the long descriptive passages of subsistence farming in the wilds of Canada became a little too Dickensian (‘yes, I have the picture, now point the lens at something else…’). Ultimately, this is a kind of gay version of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and it suffers in the comparison (Johnson says more in a third of the page count, and manages more nuance too.)

Bernard Cooper – Truth Serum
Another memoir – not usually my cuppa, but Cooper is such a good writer I overlooked that 🙂 (His Guess Again story collection remains a personal favourite.) Truth Serum takes the form of a series of linked autobiographical essays, the one about sighs is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in years. Here’s a snippet:

“Before I learned that Venetian prisoners were led across it to their execution, I imagined that the Bridge of Sighs was a feat of invisible engineering, a structure vaulting above the earth, the girders and trusses, the stay ropes and cables, the counterweights and safety rails connecting one human breath to the next.”

Neil Bartlett – The Disappearance Boy
Every one of his novels seems very different to me, which makes each new one pot luck as a reader. The (terrific) beginning to this one is a red herring, although it reminded me of Golding’s Darkness Visible (a good thing). A thriller set in the world of cabaret and variety, it’s a deft period piece with a winning anti-hero. Slightly too much of the mechanics of magic acts sometimes, although they are far from irrelevant, and the arch narrative voice is delicious but might drive some people bananas. If you like your glamour faded, caught painting nail varnish over the ladder in its tights, this one’s for you. And it would make a cracking TV drama serial.

Charles Lambert – A Zero at its Heart
This shouldn’t work. A fictionalised autobiography, it’s author has confessed elsewhere, ordered by named themes in 24 chapters of 10 paras, each of 120 words. That almost certainly sounds really unattractive, but in cumulatively building a picture of a person and a life, it overcomes its straitjacket of form completely. An experiment that works, rather than What doesn’t quite work for me is the balance of content, in that parts of the life seem overrepresented and others seem relatively absent. And rather too much mother, perhaps – maybe this is ‘honest’, but how far is any memoir truly that?

January soundtrack:

Oz Noy – Asian Twistz: a live album from an under-promoted Israeli guitarist, this is technically ‘fusion’, but if you told yourself it was really blues with some advanced (and very original) use of effects that gains from the earthiness and hairiness of live performance, those of you who are allergic to the phrase would probably like this a lot.

Medboe/Erikson/Halle – The Space Between: a very different kettle of cod, this is geographically displaced Norwegian-school Scandi jazz, rendered with guitar, piano and trumpet. Spacious and serene, this isn’t afraid to be beautiful.

Renaud Garcia-Fons -The Oriental Bass: for those that need a label before reading on, the closest is probably ‘flamenco;, although it hardly covers the musical scope here. This is truly world music – in the sense that it musical influences are widely drawn, and drawn by skilled hands: this isn’t one of those button-pressing affairs where someone bolts some beats under a banjo. Garcia-Fons is a world-class double bass player, and this is a very classy album – not a ‘journey’ (wretch), and rather more a trip (maaan).

Seckou Keita – 22 Strings: there are two instruments I wish I could play. The first is the piano (my left hand won’t play ball), and the second is the kora – and the number of years I’d need to get this standard would have me a few decades beyond the grave. If you enjoy solo kora, get thee to Amazon/Spotify/iTunes: he’s not one of the world’s most highly-rated players for nothing.


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