Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five Meetings With Philip Roth

From September 1993 – January 1995 I worked in the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble at 82nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York. There were quite a few authors who lived in that neighbourhood in that time but the one I remember most vividly is Philip Roth whom I met five times in the mundane capacity of book seller and customer. According to my journal this is how those encounters went. Warning – mundane is the operative word here.

1. My friend Scott tells me that Philip Roth is at the Information Desk. We approach and ask if he needs any help. He asks if either of us is the manager. We say no. He asks if there’s a policy about which books get “faced out” on the shelves and which books are placed there spine only. We say there is no such policy and Scott asks if he would like his books to be faced out? He says that we must be mind readers. We face out all the Philip Roth books and Roth grins like we've pulled off a heist or something which is charming. 

2. Philip Roth comes in and asks me if we carry A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess. We certainly do I tell him but when I look on the shelves it’s not there. I offer to special order it for him but he declines. He stands there awkwardly for a few seconds and I tell him that a lot of people have been buying Operation Shylock. He thinks I’m pulling his leg but I’m not, it’s been selling really well. Roth seems pleased about this. Scott tells me later that John Updike (Roth’s friend) gave it a bad review in the New Yorker and this (the Upper West Side) is the heart of New Yorker reading country.

3. Roth is talking to a friend of mine in the art department about what happened on Christmas Eve. A woman died in a chair and sat there the whole day dead un-noticed until she was ice cold. I sidle into the conversation and add the macabre detail that they threw a sheet over her and kept selling books (it was the busiest night of the year) until the paramedics came to take her away. 

4. Philip Roth is hanging around the display book table I have set up for St Patrick’s Day. I ask him if he’s interested in any of the books. He asks me if I’ve read Samuel Beckett’s A Dream of Fair to Middling Women. I say that I have. He asks me how it was and I tell him it was ok. He nods dubiously and does not buy it. I wonder if he ever met Samuel Beckett and I want to ask him but I can't summon up the bottle to do it. He drifts away and I curse myself. 

5. Philip Roth has an appointment to see my manager about an event. She’s late because she’s in the ladies room pumping her breasts. I explain this to him. He seems amazed by this information and asks how the breast pump works. I tell him I have no idea. He asks several more questions about the breast pump but I’m unable to answer any of them. (For the next five years or so I scan every new Philip Roth novel for a breast pumping scene but I don’t find one.) 

Scott Purdum's Something Wonderful


my review of Something Wonderful from the Weekend Australian...

In early 1942 Richard Rodgers, the composer, realised that he might have a problem on his hands, when, one night after dinner, he watched his lyricist, Lorenz Hart, drink 14 whiskies in a row. Rodgers was clearly in need of a new partner for the musical he was cooking up about the Oklahoma territory. Rodgers and Hart, two Jewish boys from Harlem had been so successful they had appeared on the cover of Time magazine but a series of flops and Hart’s alcoholism could have meant the end of Rodgers’ dreams of reinventing American musical theatre.
            Into the breach stepped Oscar Hammerstein another gifted Jewish kid from the neighbourhood (he lived literally round the corner from Hart and Rodgers) who had had some moderate Broadway hits of his own.
            The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein would last from 1943’s Oklahoma! to 1959’s The Sound of Music. The pair would dominate Broadway for twenty years, win thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
            Todd S. Purdum’s well written and very well researched Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution unpacks not just the personalities of Rodgers and Hammerstein but also what made the musicals themselves tick and how and why they were so ground-breaking.
            Before Oklahoma! Broadway shows had talky bits and singy bits that didn’t really gel together. Oklahoma! was a complete musical vision with unity of book, score, ballet and performance that would set the template of how to do musical theatre until 2015’s Hamilton sort of changed the game again.
            Something Wonderful will cure you of the notion that tunes are somehow composed in the ether and simply written down on sheet music. Oscar Hammerstein worked from dawn to midnight on the book and lyrics for his shows and Rodgers, who had a gift for melody, would trim, re-arrange and brutally cut songs and interludes that failed to connect with the audience. Just how much blood, sweat, tears, cutting and editing went into these productions is astonishing.
            Oklahoma! was followed by Carousel which was followed by State Fair, South Pacific and The King and I. Every one of them was a winner. Housewives, factory workers, presidents and kings found themselves ‘Whistling A Happy Tune’ or singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’. By the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein were a musical producing factory who had become such a juggernaut that even their flops became hits. Who now remembers Allegro,  or Me and Juliet? Yet both of those pulled the punters in in their tens of thousands.
            Both men had happy marriages to women called Dorothy who were interior decorators. Hammerstein’s Dorothy was from Tasmania and he seems to have spent a surprising amount of time relaxing in Melbourne.
            But, into each life some rain must fall (not a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein alas) and this would be a dull book if it was a merely a record of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s upward trajectory of triumphs. Pipe Dream, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, is the first of their flops to actually flop and it’s fun to read about Henry Fonda ghastly croak of a voice and Hammerstein’s starchy and confused attempt to write a musical set in a brothel but not actually set it in a brothel.
            After the failure of Pipe Dream and the moderate hit Flower Drum Song the final collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the undeniably brilliant The Sound of Music which has hit tune after hit tune, a charming book, witty lyrics and just enough darkness (the Anschluss) to leaven the pudding.
            Hammerstein was diagnosed with stomach cancer and did not live to see the superb film version starring Julie Andrews. He died surrounded by his family (including sort-of adopted son Stephen Sondheim) at the top of his game.
            Sometimes it’s best to know when to leave the stage. Purdum points out that Richard Rodgers lived long enough to see his work considered to be ‘middlebrow’ and ‘unsophisticated’ and sadly Rodgers seems to have been believed some of these criticisms and he too began drinking heavily like his ex partner Lorenz Hart. He died in 1979 a man baffled and out of touch with his times.
            Today, however, the work keeps going strong. Five thousand Rodgers and Hammerstein productions take place each year and it’s a good bet that someone somewhere is singing ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Happy Talk’ on a stage as you read this. Purdum isn’t interested in literary criticism or Marxist deconstruction or semiotics (thank goodness) he just wants to tell the story of the plays and the personalities and he does this with breeziness, cheerfulness and aplomb. Something Wonderful is one of the most enjoyable books this reviewer has read in a rather depressing year for non fiction and that, surely, is something to sing about.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

David Park's New Novel

my review of the new David Park novel in last weekend's Australian newspaper...

David Park’s Travelling In A Strange Land

A man called Tom is setting off on a journey in the dead of winter to bring his son back home again. The boy, Luke, has gotten sick while at the University of Sunderland – he’s not ill enough to go to the hospital, but he is feeling awful and he just wants to be looked after by his mum. The problem is that a freak blizzard has closed all the airports and made driving on the roads treacherous. Tom and his wife Lorna live on the Ards Peninsula in eastern Northern Ireland and getting to Sunderland will entail a ferry crossing from Belfast to Cairnryan and then a drive across Scotland and northern England. Tom, Lorna and their young daughter Lily help pack their trusty RAV4 full of food, water sleeping bags, a torch and in case he gets stranded, Lilly solemnly gives him her toy wig-wam tent. Tom waves drives away from the house, skids on the bend at the bottom of the road, nearly crashes right at the start but makes it to the Belfast docks.
            Thus begins Irish writer David Park’s tenth novel. Park writes in the lyrical, psychologically acute tradition of the late twentieth century masters of the Irish short story John McGahern and William Trevor but his style remains nimble and flexible enough so that discussions of Morrissey’s lyrics, Brexit shenanigans and the Marvel Cinematic Universe do not seem out of place. Park, born in 1954, is a near contemporary of Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry but unlike those two Dublin based novelists, Park flew largely under the radar as an English teacher in Belfast until the publication of The Truth Commissioner (2008) which found him a whole new audience. The Truth Commissioner was a masterful exploration of what life was like in post-conflict Ulster, as the province, ten years removed from Troubles, struggled with a kind of collective post traumatic stress disorder.
            Travelling In A Strange Land also deals with some aspects of the city’s recovery from three decades of low level civil war (there is a flashback to Tom dealing with a vicious paramilitary who is bothering his primary school teacher wife) but Park is more invested in delving deep into Tom’s personality and his relations with his family, all of which become manifest as the book progresses.
            Park flits skillfully between the present drive through Scotland, Tom’s recollections of his past and dialogues that Tom has with his Lorna, Lilly, his ailing son Luke and his enigmatic lost son Daniel. Tom is a photographer and he has a bold visual painter’s eye for landscape and place. He imagines himself like one of “Brueghel’s trudging hunters who return from foraging for food in the wilderness” to an indifferent village who “don’t rush to greet them or understand anything of what they have endured.”
            Like the Hunters in the Snow, Tom does endure physical hardship on the journey across Scotland, helping out the victim of a nasty car accident but Park is more fascinated, like the German poet Novalis (also a Brueghel devotee), in the inward journey which is “The Way full of mystery.”
            Tom paints himself as an ordinary bloke in an ordinary middle class job taking photographs of school kids and newly-weds but in fact he’s a man who “has come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: you don’t make a photograph just with a camera, but [with] all that you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
            Nowhere in Europe or possibly the world has the Christian religion failed as spectacularly as Ireland with its history of abuse, blood feud and the toxic ‘Narcissism of the Small Differences’ between different sects; Tom like many disaffected Irish people has carved out an intriguing personal mythology that bespeaks an older religion vested in totemic places in the land. Tom imagines himself in Belfast’s hidden river, the Farset, (the origin of the city's name - Béal Feirste) which has long been culverted over and flows now like the Styx under the feet of the living and the dead. In Tom’s mind we visit Ulster’s ancient holy places, the Giant’s Causeway, The Dark Hedges and when Tom’s troubled eldest son Daniel disappears from home Tom seeks him out in Belfast’s facetiously named Holy Land: Jerusalem Street, Palestine Street, Damascus Street, Carmel Street. Tom eventually finds Daniel, like his Biblical namesake, fallen among the Babylonians, where he fares rather worse than the dream weaver of King Nebuchadnezzar.
            The Old Testament Daniel is saved from the lions by an Angel of the Lord and as we travel east with Tom towards the sunrise we realise that his secret destination is Antony Gormley’s massive steel statue The Angel of the North just outside of Sunderland.
            “What is the purpose of this journey?” Tom asks himself on page one and by the end we know that the journey has two purposes: to rescue his ailing younger son and to seek to lay to rest his guilt over how he somehow lost the prodigal older boy.
            Like the extraordinary 2013 Stephen Knight film Locke the action in Travelling takes place almost entirely in a car in the protagonist’s own head and yet this is somehow a visually arresting, gripping and completely compelling novel from one of Ireland best contemporary writers.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Cold Cold Ground in Japan

The Cold Cold Ground, a "parochial story about grim, grey 80s Belfast with only limited cult appeal" (a direct quote from an anonymous publishers reader's report) gets translated into its 14th language - Japanese - and is published in Japan today:

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

My Favourite Swimming Books

These are some of my favourite books about swimming, swimmers and the writers who have reflected on swimming. 

Find A Way - Diana Nyad. Diana Nyad's life and what inspired her to try - again - to swim from Havana to Key West and succeed this time at the age of 64. Diana Nyad is one of my heroes. 

Waterlog - Roger Deakin. The eccentric Englishman's attempt to swim wild (in rivers, canals, loughs, lakes & seas) all over Britain. A classic of the genre. This book has serious longevity and a growing number of cult fans. I saw a German man reading it on a bus near Alice Springs a thousand miles from the nearest bit of Ocean. 

Hell And High Water - Sean Conway. An unemployed man living with his mum decides to swim nearly 1000 miles (in stages) from Land's End to John O'Groats and raise money for the charity War Child. 

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero - Charles Sprawson. The best look at swimming through literature and attempting literary swims (the Hellespont, The Grand Canal etc.) Everyone should read this book even if they don't actually swim or like swimming because it's just so well written.  

Swimming to Antarctica - Lynne Cox. Maybe the greatest long distance swimmer of all time the amazing Lynne Cox recounts her adventures all over the world including, of course, swimming to Antrarctica. 

The Man Who Swam The Amazon - Martin Strehl. Another ordinary bloke who decided one day to swim the Amazon River. Why? Cause no one else had done it, of course. 

Swim: Why We Love The Water - Lynn Sher. Does what it says on the tin. A lovely book to have if you liked Sprawson's Black Masseur and want some more in a similar vein. Well researched and fun. 

The Swimmer - John Cheever. A classic. No point in buying this though. One of my alma maters (can you have more than one mater?) has put it online for nothing, here. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

All The Books In The Duffyverse (updated)

...I've figured out a way of tying in Fifty Grand to the Duffyverse in The Detective Up late so this is now the complete list of the Duffyverse books. However I'm more convinced than ever that the Alexander Lawson of Hidden River exists in not quite the same universe as the Alexander Lawson of the Sean Duffy novels, maybe one universe over...All the rest works fine. And yes Michael Forsythe and Killian will be appearing in the final trilogy...

Monday, March 26, 2018

5 reasons to read....Angie Thomas's The Hate U GIve

Angie Thomas's powerful YA novel The Hate U Give has just won the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize - your correspondent ahead of the curve comme d'habitude...

Thursday, March 15, 2018

More Info On The Final 3 Sean Duffy Novels

so as I said a couple of weeks ago Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly will definitely not be the last Sean Duffy novel. I've announced a new deal with Blackstone Books for a final Duffy trilogy. Here are some more details...(all the titles of course are Tom Waits songs)
Sean Duffy 7 will be called The Detective Up Late. Sean Duffy and the crew have to investigate a missing person's case that involves some very scary people. Around the station they're calling it "Duffy's last case" but untangling that particular thread threatens to unravel their whole world. 

Sean Duffy 8 will be called Hang On St Christopher. Duffy serving out his days as a part time copper is called up to look into a 'simple' murder investigation while Detective Sergeant Lawson is on holiday. A portrait painter's car has been hijacked and he is shot dead in the attempt. Unfortunately for Duffy there was more to the painter than meets the eye and this is a far more dangerous and terrifying case than a simple carjacking gone wrong. 

Sean Duffy 9 will be called The Ghosts of Saturday Night and deals with what happens as a result of the 90's Peace Process in Belfast when 300 murderers are released back into the general population many with old scores to settle and some bizarre new ideas to implement. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin

My review of Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin from last weekend's Australian newspaper
A winter’s night in the far west of Ireland in 1993. A trainee Garda officer, Cormac Reilly, is driving through the rain between the bog and the mountains. Something has happened at Dower House, a derelict Georgian mansion in the hamlet of Kilmore.
When Reilly arrives at the property he finds Maude Blake, a near-starving, wide-eyed 15-year-old, and Jack, her bruised and battered five-year-old brother. The girl points upstairs, where Reilly finds the children’s drunken, emaciated mother, Hilaria, with a heroin needle sticking out of her arm.
For Reilly it’s a gothic, distressing scene but the case seems straightforward enough: the Blakes were a dissipated Anglo-Irish family on the decline and Hilaria’s death was clearly only a matter of time. Two things then happen that complicate the story: the medical examiner says that Hilaria had never taken heroin before the fatal overdose and, shortly after this, Maude Blake completely vanishes.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
Twenty years later, in Galway, Jack Blake is engaged to a brilliant young doctor, Aisling, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The day he hears this news he goes out for a walk and does not come back. Reilly, meanwhile, after a high-flying career in the anti-terrorism taskforce, has moved back to Galway town to further his wife’s career as a research scientist.
Reilly is not exactly thrilled to be working in the cold-case basement but when the 20-year-old case of Hilaria Blake is dumped on his desk he wonders if this is more than a ­coincidence.
This is the arresting opening to Dervla McTiernan’s assured debut novel, The Ruin. A lawyer from Galway, McTiernan moved to Western Australia following the global financial crisis of 2008.
As The Ruin progresses, we follow Reilly and Aisling’s dovetailing quest for truth. When Jack’s long-lost sister returns from Australia to find out what happened to her brother, all narrative gears are set in motion.
I like the vibe McTiernan creates of a small-town police headquarters with its dank offices and “slurping foul-smelling pot noodles­” and I like Reilly’s pal, the dodgy Danny McIntyre, who is a copper on the rise. McTiernan joins such contemporary masters­ of the Garda police procedural as Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway, Anthony Quinn and Arlene Hunt, with a polished and original story that also draws on the hidden secrets storylines of such writers as Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy. Her dialogue and milieu are authentic and I found no examples of cop talk catachresis.
The Ruin delves deep into the police troika of sins: corruption, laziness and bigotry. But McTiernan also has something to say about the changes that have taken place in Ireland over the past 20 years.
She writes about the seemingly endless wave of scandals that hit the Catholic Church of Ireland in this period, particularly ones ­involving the abuse of children. As mentioned, McTiernan is a lawyer and a text that is mentioned several times in The Ru in is the Irish constitution, which is not as alarming as it sounds.
Ireland’s original constitution begins: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ ...”
You get the picture. For 70 years after it won independence, Ireland was a quasi-theocracy with whole areas of civic life devolved to the church. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but no one seemed to notice this until the dam began to break in the mid-1990s.
Into this heady mix McTiernan also has time to skilfully unpack Maude and Aisling’s grief and to give us an acute psychological portrait of Reilly, a policeman who worries that his career might just have peaked.
McTiernan’s writing style is best described as workmanlike. There are few opportunities for wit in this dark story but this is Ireland, so there is still time for the occasional piss-take.
Stephen King teaches young writers that their prose mustn’t become distracting, that what is important about a novel are the characters and the story. This is good advice but perhaps you can take a little too much of the medicine. I don’t see anything wrong with ­allowing your prose to breathe a bit and let some of your personality leak out, even in a police procedural. This goes doubly for a writer from the land of saints, scribes and scholars.
Still, The Ruin is a breezily confident debut and promises a bright future for this new Irish-Australian talent.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the award-winning Sean Duffy crime novels.
The Ruin
By Dervla McTiernan
HarperCollins, 400pp, $32.99