More books

Yes I’m still hooked on audiobooks. Some more reviews:

Bill Bryson – Notes from a small Island

I’m not particularly interested in travel books but some folk are such entertaining writers that the content isn’t all that important. I’m sure I could read Charlie Brooker writing about the telephone book. Actually that’s a complete lie, I’ve skipped all the political stuff on his blog recently. But Bill Bryson waffling about his UK trips? I can sure enjoy that.

There’s a great balance in the book. Lot’s of ranting and raving about all the things that are shit about the UK, a lot of which are common to living in Ireland. Like the architectural rape of our cities in previous decades where monstrosities of buildings (Phibsborough shopping center?) were hideously erected, often in place of beautiful old buildings. But it’s also balanced with a great love for all the things that make the country great, peppered with the turn of phrase that makes Bill Bryson so laugh out loud funny.

The narrator’s posh English accent didn’t really work for me. Words like ‘Fuck’ just sounded wrong coming out of his mouth. Like he was spitting out something dirty. And some really ranty bits that were meant to be funny, just didn’t have the right kick, and made him sound like an asshole. Which he’s not, I imagined him cringing at some bits. But I got used to it after a chapter or two and most of it sounded fine. I’ve since noticed that Bryson narratesNeither here nor there himself, but I had a quick listen and the confidence in his writing doesn’t seem to carry in his voice. And nor should every writer need to sound like a professional narrator, obviously. So I guess it’s hard work trying to get the right narrator for any autobiographical work, unless read by the author.

Transition by Iain Banks. Narrated by Peter Kenny

I can’t easily pick favourites but I can easily say The Wasp Factory is my favourite book ever, and just as it was with Wasp Factory it was a bad review that drew me to Transition. Something about a sick joke. I like a bit of sick lit! But it turns out, you can indeed read too much of the one author. I think I’m done with Banksie now. As I’ve said before I was a total Banksie fanboy. I’ve read everything he’s written, and with that in mind, I found Transition quite repetitive and lazy. All the same themes I’ve read before too many times. He seems obsessed with big operations running the world, or the universe. Either rich families or secret organisations. There’s nothing new in Transition, it’s Quantum Leap with a thinly veiled Contact pulling the strings, as in Contact from all his Culture novels but in this book they’re called Concern. Contact/Concern, thin veil alright. And I feel like I’ve grown out of this type of science fiction for sure. I’d love to see Banksie getting back to the small personal books like Wasp Factory. No complaints on the audio end of things, all quite good readers.

Nick Hornby – Juliet Naked

Nick Hornby is really good at is writing good books that are very easy to read. No mean feat. And he’s great at nailing relationships, I found a lot of the relationship stuff close to the bone, and quite funny. And I can remember really enjoying it at the start but thought it lacked something overall. Couldn’t help thinking I was reading a screenplay rather than a book. Considering the main plot device resolves around people writing reviews on the Internet, the irony of this review wasn’t lost on me and I did enjoy the musings about good art, and who has the right to say what does and doesn’t make good art, the author? the fan? or the regular Joe?

The three narrators were good at playing themselves, but it fell apart when they had to quote each other, which is common in every book but sometimes problematic in audiobooks; the american actor putting on a British female voice and vice versa did not sound good. Or even (English) Annie quoting her husband Duncan, that sounded quite off; she gave him a personality transplant with a really silly voice. You could argue that’s how they perceived each other but it just sounded off to me. Though that’s a small point as it didn’t happen so often.

Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Travellers Wife

I loved this book. I found myself enjoying it from the start, but then halfway through, at a particular chapter I just thought “Wow – this is fantastic”. Niffenegger is a great writer, I kept noticing how she conveys so much with such short phrases; with just a few words you would know the exact look on a character’s face for example. And I really warmed to the characters, in a way which I don’t easily do.

I enjoyed the fact that you’d think it’d be a sci-fi novel but it’s really about a couple’s struggle to come to terms with a problem. Sure everyone has their problems, in their case it just so happens that Henry can’t stop travelling through time. And yes every sci-fi novel has a back story, but as someone who’s just grown sick of space operas this was a refreshing antithesis. The idea reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Middlesex by Jeffrey Euginedes, the fact that the main character is an hemaphrodite is irrelevant; it’s the coming of age story anyone could relate to that normalizes a freak affliction, just like the husband of the Time Traveller’s Wife. I miss reading it.

Mark Kermode – It’s Only a Movie

I’d actually intended to buy the paper version of this until I noticed it was narrated by Kermode himself. I just know that wouldn’t have worked with anyone else reading. Specially as I’m so used to hearing his voice on the Podcast. Unless it had been read by Jason Issacs, as that’s who Kermode casts as himself, in this story of his life through the eye of a movie. I loved this book too. I love Kermode’s passion for movies and he’s captured it perfectly. The excitement he describes seeing his favourite movies for the first time is contagious.

I thought one chapter, in Russia, dragged on a little, and was eagerly awaiting some more good stuff when it ended! So it is with an audiobook – if you’re not keeping an eye on the timer. A dissapointing ending *only* because I was enjoying it so much and it ended too soon. Highly recommended if you’re a Kermode fan or a movie nut.

Stieg Larsson – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s a jolly good romp for sure. A classic modern daywhodunnit that I mostly enjoyed… but I dunno… I found the characters a bit unconvincing, the heroine is interesting yes, but just not quite authentic enough. Too many conflicting traits. And the plot just started to feel a bit contrived by the end. I enjoyed the fact that it was a classic locked room type mystery at the start, but I’m not sure I’m much of a whodunnit fan. The plot devices are just all too similar. Maybe a low jab, but I couldn’t help thinking it was similar to the DaVinci code, page turners yes I suppose, but lacking in character depth.

On the audio end of things, not for the first time did it take me some time to get used to an overly posh stage voice. I don’t mind posh voices. Quite like them but when you have to listen to a single voice for 16 hours, any strong accent, one way or the other, can be grating.

David Sedaris – Me talk pretty some day

I don’t think I’ve read a book of essays before. But I really liked it. I couldn’t help thinking each essay was similar to a blog post. But written by a high calibre blogger who knows his craft. Amusing stories from the life of Sedaris, told with flair and wit, both touching and funny. It inspired my Mi Padres esta Muerto post and similarly a lot of the tales in this book involved struggles with a foreign language, though much funnier in the hands of Sedaris. Amusing take to hear some of the chapters being read in front of an audience. A nice mash up of stand-up comedy and audiobook. It was a slightly different experience to hear every sentence punctuated with laughter, which made me laugh rather than smile at the funny bits. I discovered this book via the Books for ears site, which is the best audio book review site I’ve come across so far.

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

Ethan Hawke! Wake the fuck up. That’s what I wanted to scream. He narrated like an old granny reading a fairy tale. Oddly it sounded great at the start, and I like Nathan Hawke but it became unbearable very quickly. I almost didn’t persevere, and it put me off the actual book. Or maybe I just didn’t like the book all that much. I couldn’t decide. Apparently a very important book, but like a lot of important books it was probably important of the time, but didn’t strike me as such an important read in the context of now. Such is the peril reading from “books you must read before you die” type lists. I’m sure they were all brilliant at the time – but sometimes the time, place and political impact is what makes them so great, and don’t always work outside of that context.

Colum McCann – Let the Great World Spin

Everyone seemed to be talking about this all of a sudden. Not sure where I heard of it at first but soon after McCann was on Arts Lives, and he came across as a likeable fellow. Next day Radge was talking about him, and then I stumbled across the Irish Times Book Club doing let the Great World Spin. So that was the next read decided.

I often have a problem of not being able to decide if I like a book until I get to the end but I enjoyed this book as I read it, enjoying each moment for what it was rather than waiting to see how it all fit into the bigger story. I think the Irish slant makes it a bit more likeable too. It’s one of those novels that weaves together many different lives, and does so without being forced (like that terribly contrived movie Crash). I can remember thinking that it was quite rich, possibly in contrast to The Girl With The Dragon.

I got to ask Colum a question via the IT Book Club.

I’m curious about the Philippe Petit character in the book. Apart from the actual Twin Towers walk, is his story somewhat fictionalized or strictly based on real stories from other books about Petit? Did you feel more pressure to get the character exactly right? More so than the fictional characters in the book? Did his appraisal invade your thoughts as you wrote?

John – it’s a great question and one fraught with all sorts of implications for what is true, what is real, what is imagined. Clifford Getz says that the real is as imagined as the imaginary. I like this notion, and I think the he corollary is true also … that the imagined is real. Sometimes this reality outraces the truth.

As for Petit the story is largely true, but it’s there to serve the purposes of fiction. As you you can tell, I’m not writing a book about Petit. I’m using the walk as a metaphor, a pull-through. In fact I didn’t really care all that much about Petit – and I don’t mean this as callously as it sounds. I certainly cared about the walk, the act of beauty, the act of creation, the art of it. But Petit as a character didn’t come into it all that much for me … the tightrope walker is the only one who remains nameless in the book. So a lot of it is based on truth – the date, the time, the details of the walk itself. Certainly it has a textural truth. But a lot of it is made up also and serves the purpose of the narrative. For example, Philippe Petit never fell in the snow as far as I know, he never thought of himself as “having sex with the wind.”

I did worry about his appraisal, yes. I talked with Petit on the phone and he gave me his blessing. I sent him the book in several different versions, but I never heard back from him except for an answering machine message. I salute his beauty, though. I salute the act that remains, even though the towers are gone.

The Dimiyagi code

Degas trotted off to the ballet school once more. He’d sketched the dancers hundreds of times now. And crafted many paintings. But to say he was infatuated with the dancers was a façade of sorts. It was the dance teacher who intrigued him most. He didn’t know anyone quite like him. He was not from Paris that was clear, but he didn’t even seem from this time. Though that thought might have been suggested by the tall tales that he would tease Degas with. That he was a man who traveled through time and place to teach his ways. That he was a man who traveled from country to country and from one century to another. He traveled from when and where so he could treat lucky individuals to his unique teaching style.

And his teaching style was unique. He often took the dancers on strange trips to perform bizarre chores for days on end. They would never question his methods and would spend days carrying out these strange tasks before returning to the dance class. Degas would humour the teacher always asking for more stories of his past, and he almost believed him, the detail of the stories wove a convincing tale.

Most intriguing of all was that the teacher said he never taught the same subject twice. And never lived in the same country twice. And never lived in the same time period twice. In 1924, he taught bullfighters in Spain. From 2040 to 2042, in Peru, he taught robots to play football better than humans. Of these tall tales Degas had a favourite; of the America boy the teacher thought to fight. Degas asked the teacher to tell that story again. And smiled as he heard it once more.

It was later that day that Degas painted one of his masterpieces, La classe de danse. The dancing class. This time he made sure to include their very special time travelling teacher. Mr Miyagi. Wax on, Wax off Daniel San.

e-flow reminder


I’ve made an e-flow reminder to avoid paying those extortionate fees when you forget to pay the toll. When you pass a toll, take it out of your glove box and stick it on your dashboard. Prints onto a 4×6″ photo size. Big version here.

Mi padre está muerto

If the sun on my face wasn’t good enough reason to be sprightly, having an appointment, some business to attend to, while hurriedly strolling down a dusty backstreet in Spain, felt quite good. You could almost imagine I lived there in Sitges, hastily checking my watch as 9am approached. That is, if it weren’t for my pasty skin buttered in factor fifty, and the plasters on my ankles where my new sandals chaffed.

We’d decided it’d be a good idea to take Spanish lessons for one week at the start of the holiday. A week in Sitges then up the coast to Barcelona by train for the weekend of Sonar. I’d never learned a language. Unless you count nine school years of Irish and three years of French. But that didn’t count. Then I didn’t want to learn, and now I found I couldn’t learn.

Two idioms merged to become truisms. One involves old dogs and new tricks. And the other, a slightly lesser known fact; it’s much harder to learn a new language if you haven’t already learned a language in your younger years. So trying to teach an old dog a new language is quite the battle.

The first thing I learned in Spanish class was that I was the only person in the dunces’ class, the absolute beginner’s class (the missus just needed some brushing up, and took the expert’s class). The next lesson I learned quite quickly too; they don’t speak English in Spanish school. I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. And my teacher wouldn’t speak a word of English. Well, I had the holster of usual phrases but that was it, so this impasse was a major inconvenience. It was though they never actually expected an absolute beginners in the absolute beginner’s class. Not really. Surely everyone would have some basic Spanish at least? It was a very slow start. I stared at her blankly as she made funny sounds and gesticulated. It was like a game of charades but even if I’d know what she was mimicking, the answer in my head would merely be in English.

A phrase I learned quite early, and one that has stuck with me since is “no entiendo” (don’t understand!). I used this phrase many many times that week. It was my deflated sigh of defeat. Uttered with the familiarity of an aging Señor with long white whiskers. But despite being on holiday I worked hard, and did my homework, and made some progress. On the last day we were ending on an exercise that was going quite well, though still quite basic in form. I had to describe my father in short phrases.

While elsewhere in the same building, the missus discussed Spanish politics and perfected her imperfect tenses, I sat there like the village idiot and pronounced : Mi padre es feliz (My father is happy). Then scraped the barrel of my soggy memory for some more words I could use, true or not.

“Mi padre es gordo”
“Mi padre es inteligente”
“Mi padre es pequeño”

Just as I was beginning to run out of adjectives my mobile rang. It was my mum. “Madre” I said apologetically, eyes going up to heaven, then gesturing more seriously to indicate I should probably take the call. I found my next adjective in the call, but hadn’t yet learned its Spanish equivelant. I ended the call and finished the exercise in English.

“My father is dead.”


With some rare free time to kill, I went to see this on a whim. Really wish I’d hung around the IFI another twenty minutes to see Dogtooth. But I’d already been hanging around a bit and I like anything to do with painting so I went to see Nightwatching, based around Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

I sure knew the name Peter Greenaway but couldn’t exactly place it. Then from the very first scene I realised it had to be the same guy who made The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and His lover (which I loved). Both are very theatrical, very well staged, broad panoramas, and slightly otherwordly.

Similar to the only other movie I’ve seen based around a painting, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, many of the scenes are like moving paintings. Tables adorned with fruit and shimmering crystal, and poised gentle folk laden in shadowed velvet. Very effective cinema in itself and it could have been great. But I can’t remember the last time I was so bored in a cinema. I couldn’t wait for it to end. After a lifetime, though it may have been an hour, a story began to appear and I realised why I was so bored, before the story it seemed like one random scene after another. But it didn’t get much better. I couldn’t care less when someone died, even though the music told me I really should care.

Riddle me this. If most of the cast, who are based on people from Amsterdam, speak with strong English accents, then why did one of the women have a very strong Dutch accent? What the hell does that mean? Is she über dutch? Confusingly inconsistent. And Martin Freeman was as good as could be. But his accent was so regional he might as well have been back in Slough wearing his office suit. It made some scenes appear like comedy sketches, albeit very well lit ones with great set design. Odd casting, or directing, or something.

I’d usually mull over the credits respectfully, but the second THE END appeared I was outta there, trying to get past people who were mulling over the credits respectfully and annoyed at my interference. Was very surprised I was the only one in such a rush to get away from it all. Lazy cliches to follow but I really found it to be terribly boring self-indulgence; a pale imitation of Greenway’s better work.