Book Diary – January 2015

‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ by Alain De Botton

Thursday 1st January – Sunday 4th January

It’s much easier to write a critical review of a book than to pin down exactly why it is that I love one. This falls in to the latter category. Over the course of ten or eleven chapters, ADB spends time with a range of people in different jobs and tries to explain the value as well as the costs of working life. He manages to produce a book that is amusing, thought-provoking and in places quite moving. His skill lies in presenting the people in a non-judgmental way, whilst at the same time revealing quite intimate details of their working lives and personalities. I’m preparing to have a clear-out of my books soon and will only keep those which I intend to read again. This will definitely be kept as I think it is the sort of book that can be read repeatedly, at different stages of life, and each time will reveal different things to the reader. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

‘American Tabloid’ by James Ellroy

Tuesday 6th January – Sunday 25th January

As always, following a great book is a poisoned chalice. So now what I tend to do is grab a book I know and love to ease the transition into the next book. That way, my craving for something new outweighs the desire for something good and allows me to run the risk of drawing a dud from the ever-present pile of unread stuff. On this occasion, I chose to re-read James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, his reimagining of the events leading up to the assassination of JFK. As ever, he gets you involved with some of the most amoral and/or repulsive sleazebags I’ve encountered in literature and keeps you turning those pages until you reach the end. I’m still in a state of uncomprehending awe at his ability to weave together the thoughts and actions of half-a-dozen or more characters (some of them real and high-profile) into an entirely plausible narrative.

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain De Botton

Sunday 25th January – Sunday 1st February

In a few weeks’ time, we will be visiting Rome for the first time. I’m very excited about it as I have heard almost exclusively good things about the city. I’ve also had an urge to visit Italy for several years and this will be the moment at which intention becomes act. I am really determined to enjoy the visit but at the same time concerned that I am building myself up for almost inevitable disappointment. Therefore it was of great interest to me that ADB had written a book on the subject of travel – why we do it, how we do it, the ways in which we get it wrong and what we might do to enjoy our travels more.

Whilst I am unlikely to lavish this book with the same degree of praise as I did ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’, I still enjoyed it greatly. It was a slower starter, but once again contained passages which gave me the feeling that ADB was somehow reading my mind and articulating my thoughts more accurately than I ever could. The truth is however, that he is often simply collating and quoting the thoughts of others.

The chapter which struck the loudest chord with me was chapter 2, in which ADB describes how Gustave Flaubert felt more in tune with ‘the Orient’ (or Egypt to you and me) than his native France. I must admit that I felt very much at home during the two long weekends Emma and I spent in Amsterdam and at the time of writing would very happily move there permanently.

I don’t think the book is quite as good as ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ but still provides plenty of food for thought.

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Book Diary Special – ‘Perfidia’ by James Ellroy

Friday 12th September – paused Friday 3rd October

Hmmmm. What to write? I don’t want to say too much as I am less than a fifth of the way through the book, and so there is plenty of opportunity for me opinions to change. However, I can’t get away from the fact that I am disappointed with it. I’m beginning to come around to the idea that James Ellroy’s best writing is at least a decade in the past, if not actually over two decades ago. I remember finding ‘Blood’s a Rover’ an underwhelming and overly political, overly wordy conclusion to the Underworld USA trilogy, and ‘Perfidia’ seems to have picked up in the same vein. The biggest flaw I can see so far is that it seems that Ellroy has written the book simply to crowbar as many of his favourite characters from previous novels into the same narrative as possible. Not only that, but he is revising their histories and insodoing slightly undermining the strength of the previous (and better) work. Finally, his preoccupation with making the majority of his characters as flawed and compromised as possible only serves to make the suspension of disbelief more challenging.

* * * * *

Resumed 18th October – Sunday 2nd November

I wrote the above before pausing the book and moving on to a couple of quicker reads. I then reluctantly went back to ‘Perfidia’ and a very strange thing happened: it all clicked. Suddenly, the characters weren’t as frustrating, the prose wasn’t so overwrought and I zipped through the remaining 550 pages at a much faster rate. In fact, the last 300 pages were read inside about 72 hours as my enjoyment snowballed.

The thing that I found most impressive (and I expect I will continue to be impressed by) was the consistency with the later books. I am looking forward to the next three editions of this quartet to see just how James Ellroy ties the various threads of his imaginary Los Angeles together so that the lives of these recurring characters arrive at the points they should be come the start of the novels in the later (set) LA Quartet. Given his ability to weave half a dozen threads together in each novel, I’m confident that this is well withing JE’s grasp.

Despite its great length, I will definitely re-read this – probably embarking on an epic string of Ellroy upon the publication of the final volume, and maybe even tying it in with the first Quartet for an even more ambitious 8-book chronological extravaganza.

Book Diary – August 2014

‘L.A. Confidential’ by James Ellroy

Friday 1st August – Tuesday 12th August

Taking a break from ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and in preparation for the imminent publication of ‘Perfidia’, I decided to treat myself to a James Ellroy. I re-read my favourite, ‘White Jazz’ a couple of years ago, so I was then torn between either ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘American Tabloid’ – and as you can see, ‘L.A. Confidential’ won.

It’s difficult to properly articulate what a brilliant writer James Ellroy is. I think I may have tried before, but I probably failed then and will fail again now. The only reason that he is not head-and-shoulders above all others in my esteem is because his early novels are not all that amazing. However, nobody can make neon-tinted sleaze seem so gloriously admirable as JE. ‘L..A. Confidential’ is a prime example. Anyone who has seen the film will be familiar with elements of the story, but despite that film’s 18-rating, it barely scratches the surface of the depravity and cruelty of the novel, and yet there are few books I have read that can match this for sheer excitement and readability.

‘The Shock of the New’ by Robert Hughes

Thursday 24th October 2013 – Wednesday 3rd September 2014

Feeling arty, I decided to take a break from the procession of Zens in December and get my teeth into something more challenging and educational.

In the end, it took me a long time to read the book. The first few chapters were slow and heavy going, and it was only when I resumed reading in August 2014 that I finally made some rapid progress.

This is often the case with more ‘intellectual’ books. The early pages are establishing the context for everything that follows, and so often contain a lot of disparate information (or so it seems at first).

I’m also concerned that most of the information went straight through my head without registering too closely on the brain as it passed. There is almost too much to take in and too much competition for an already stretched attention budget when reading in the environment of a workplace kitchen at lunchtime.

Book Diary – May 2013

‘The Wanderers’ by Richard Price

Tuesday 7th May – Thursday 9th May

Another one of my Christmas presents, this is Richard Price’s debut novel. I’ve enjoyed all of the other Richard Price books I’ve read – Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan and Lush Life –  as well as his work on The Wire. His eye for human nature and his ear for dialogue (as if I can tell authentic 60s Bronx teenage slang!) make his books very rewarding reading.

This was different from the other books of his, all superior-quality whodunits, in that it was a coming-of-age tale. I must admit I’m not a massive fan of this type of story. In my experience, they tend to fall into two categories: (1) something outlandish happens which causes the main character(s)’ transition from nominal child to nominal adult, or (2) a teenage boy or group of boys spends their time and energy trying to have sex with anything that moves (often unsuccessfully).This falls into the second category for a couple of chapters, but doesn’t dwell solely on that and so manages to escape the trap.

The interesting thing for me was that this book lacked the linear narrative of all his other work, and instead is comprised of a dozen chapters which could almost be read as separate short stories. Each contains some or all of a recurring cast of characters, with the focus shifting from one to the other as the chapters change.

As someone who harbours distant and probably never-to-be-realised dreams of maybe one day writing a book, it was encouraging to see that it was possible to get something published which lacked a standard plot, especially as it was Price’s debut novel and so there was nothing else to provide as evidence of his ability as a writer. Perhaps this paragraph is revealing the narrowness of my own imagination and my ignorance of what publishers look for in a writer, but I have always imagined that most start off with a safe, formulaic novel, and expand their scope once their reputation is more firmly established. Clearly not! There is hope for me yet…

‘Brown’s Requiem’ By James Ellroy

Friday 10th May – Friday 17th May

Yes, it’s the Demon Dog of American crime again! Following Richard Price’s first novel is James Ellroy’s début publication. It contains all the usual Ellroy trademarks – intricate plot, Los Angeles setting, death, drugs, sleaze, sex and violence in spades.

As such, it’s a pretty good book, however, I would also say that it is more flawed than usual. In some ways it is clear that it is his first book. To an extent, he has taken the maxim ‘write what you know’ too far – there are sections of the book which are utterly redundant and exist only as extended monologues on the joys of classical music and life as a golf caddy (both aspects of James Ellroy’s personal history), distorting the story somewhat as these aspects of the characters were given exaggerated prominence.

I like discovering an author, reading their masterpieces and then going back to read their early work and see if I can find the seeds of their success concealed within the pages of their first tenuous steps into the literary world. In this case, it is clear to see that James Ellroy had a clear idea of his own style and interests right from the very start.

‘The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher, or, The Murder At Road Hill House’ by Kate Summerscale

Friday 17th May – Thursday 30th May

This was something of an impulse purchase having heard an interview with the author on a BBC books podcast. I left it on my shelf for a couple of months, intrigued by the synopsis but not overly desperate to start it in preference to some of the other books which I’ve read recently.

I neglected it undeservedly.

While it starts slowly, and with a little too much detail, it builds into an utterly fantastic book. The ‘excessive’ detail gives it the feeling of a proper police investigation, and I’m sure that was the intention.

The book’s greatest success is that it manages to be several things at once. It is, on the face of it, an account of the murder of a small boy and the subsequent investigation. However, it also manages to be a history of the police force and the early days of detectives, a social history of Victorian Britain and a guide to the early days of detective novels, and more than that an illustration of how all four subjects were closely interlinked.

When I read a book like this, in which the strands fit so neatly together, I always wonder whether this is because the author has spent a long time researching a great number of cases and picked the one which fits the theme of the book best (assuming he or she has chosen the them originally, rather than developing it as they write), or whether in fact it is a demonstration of their skill as a writer that they are able to join the dots so smoothly and the actual case they choose is almost irrelevant. I would love to ask Kate Summerscale if the opportunity ever arose.

These Two Make A Write Pair

James Ellroy and David Peace in conversation | Books | The Guardian.

This article isn’t new (in fact it’s over eight months old), but I only stumbled across it recently. It features two of my favourite authors in conversation about James Ellroy’s latest book, ‘Blood’s A Rover’ (no, I have no idea what that title means either).

I haven’t read the Underworld USA trilogy yet – it’s next on my ‘to read’-list – but I have ready many of Ellroy’s books, and they have consistently intrigued, appalled and enthralled me in equal measure. The best, I think, is ‘White Jazz’, part of the L.A. Quartet which, coincidentally, is named as a major influence by David Peace in this article.

One of the things that I find most interesting about this piece is the very candid way in which James Ellroy talks about himself. He seems to make no apologies for things he has said and done, and yet also admits that they way he was was less than desirable. He strikes me as an intriguing man.

David Peace is another literary hero of mine. His style, particularly in the Red Riding Quartet, is clearly influenced by James Ellroy, specifically ‘White Jazz’ as mentioned before. In contrast to James Ellroy, I have read everything David Peace has written, and been equally captivated by his historical novels and their ability to put the reader right inside the mind of the main character or characters.

As a result, the idea of the two of them ‘in conversation’ is a very interesting one.