Thursday, October 27, 2016

Well, Some People Like Me

I've been going through a very tricky patch professionally in the last wee while, so it was nice to see these reviews on Good Reads of Rain Dogs, all from the last week.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

True Detective & Philosophy

a post from a coupla years back
I think one of the reasons why True Detective was so surprisingly good was because the show's writer did not go to Harvard. In Hollywood these days it seems that most of the people in the writers rooms are Ivy League educated men (its almost always men) who grew up in very comfortable upper middle class homes. They've read a lot of books, interned at all the right places, made all the right connections and look presentable but they know absolutely nothing about life. Nic Pizzolatto who wrote and was the showrunner on True Detective does not come from that world. As Wikipedia explains he "grew up poor in a working-class Catholic family in New Orleans and at age 5 he and his family moved to the rural area outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana." In interviews Pizzolatto has talked about growing up in a house without books and how he became increasingly estranged from his surroundings. Wikipedia again: "Lots of poor people there, lots of drinking and fighting and cheating. Also lots of fanatical religion and illiteracy. It’s a rough place." When he finally did get out of Lake Charles Pizzolatto became an autodidact who devoured books and became interested in metaphysics. Perhaps because of his background and probably because he didn't study philosophy at university he was able to pursue his interests in a very unfashionable school of moral philosophy and ethics: the philosophy of pessimism.
Although it had ancient antecedents pessimism's philosophical foundations were laid down for the most part by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Schopenhauer influenced in no small part by Buddhism believed that life was largely one of suffering and pain. We are, Schopenhauer says, driven remorselessly by time's whips and even when our wants are satisfied there is no feeling of achievement or satisfaction, but merely a new want that begins bugging us. (I was sufficiently interested in Schopenhauer to write a novel about a group of Schopenhauer inspired cultists who moved to a South Pacific Island to escape the world.) Although some professional philosophers believe that Schopenhauer has been superseded by Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants he really hasn't. Schopenhauer's skepticism about the inherent utility of life itself is still a potent lance with which to poke utilitarians and Kantian deontologists. 
Nic Pizzolatto's main philosophical influences are the modern viverian skeptics David Benatar, Thomas Ligotti and Eugene Thacker. I've read Benatar and Ligotti and was quite impressed by the singularity of their vision and the purity of their argument if not quite completely won over by the bleakness of their world-view. Benatar is a proper peer reviewed philosopher at the University of Cape Town. His book Better To Have Never Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence is a thorough, contemporary account of pessimism. Benatar argues that life is suffering and pain and (like his namesake Pat) that even love is a, er, battlefield. His conclusion is that non existence is the only sensible course for a sentient being and that more sentient beings should not be brought into the world. If he had killed himself shortly after finishing the book I would find Benatar's argument a bit more convincing but he seems to live a pretty good life in Cape Town and this good life that he lives is a kind of refutation of everything he says in the book, don't you think?
Thomas Ligotti is a different kettle of fish. Like his namesake Gyorgy Ligeti Ligotti is obsessed by the austere beauty of the dark. Ligotti is a horror writer very much influenced by the pessimistic gothic fiction of HP Lovecraft and the ghost stories of MR James. True Detective in fact often feels like it is taking place in Lovecraft's universe and Cthulu himself is perhaps the mysterious terrifying presence lurking in the bayou in the guise of the Yellow King. (If you ever played Call of Cthulu in the 1980s you'll remember that Cthulu inspired insanity was an important part of the game.) Ligotti's non fiction work The Conspiracy Against The Human Race  is a brilliant literary and philosophical analysis of the pessimistic strain in contemporary culture. Not exactly a nihilist Ligotti is an anti-natalist who believes that the human race cannot be redeemed and that consciousness was an "evolutionary mistake."
I don't know much about Eugene Thacker but he sounds really interesting too. He's a philosopher at the New School in New York. In an interview with Scapegoat magazine he talked about what attracts him to pessimism: 

That is a good definition of “pessimism” to me—the philosophy of the futility of philosophy.[This thread is taken up from] Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Pascal, the French moralists. . .writing against the presuppositions of grand, systematic philosophy, composed as it is of fragments, aphorisms, stray thoughts. There is a subtractive rigour to this kind of pessimism, what Nietzsche called the rigour of the “unfinished thought.”  

There's a good wikipedia page about Thacker, here. Since I have your attention I'd also like to mention my old philosophy tutor John Gray who is a well known anti-utopianist and a skeptic about progress in culture and morals. His most recent book is The Silence of Animals
If you're interested in this topic there's a very nice dialogue on The Vulture between Matt Patches and Paul J Ennis where they talk about Detective Rust's nihilistic world view and the - slight - plagiarism controversy over whether Rust's ideas were 'lifted' from or inspired by Ligotti. In the very last act of True Detective, Pizzolatto has Rust change his mind about nihilism and I think this was a bit of a cop out, probably inspired by nervous producers who wanted a little light at the end of the tunnel. Apart from that minor failure of nerve True Detective is as good an exploration of pessimism as you'll see in contemporary culture. My original post looking at some of these aspects and exploring the feminist critique of the show is here. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Girl With All The Gifts, The Girl On The Train, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Gun Street Girl

...Morrigan the crow...
The Girl With All The Gifts is the only plausible zombie book I've ever read: scientific, charming (no really), witty and scary this is a great little novel. The movie version is out in the UK right now and has been getting generally good reviews. The Girl On The Train has inspired either love or loathing since it was published and became a runaway best seller - on the whole I liked it: the story of a drunk girl who fakes being a commuter to Euston every morning so she can fit in with society. Yes the story turns on the hacky devices of coincidence and amnesia but the layers of the onion peel back in a most entertaining way. I havent seen the movie but Emily Blunt looks way too well preserved to be the drunk of the book. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an incredibly bad Swedish mystery novel that rails against the violence directed against women but is stuffed to the gills with explicit torture porn. Horrible prose, dreary cliches (fat American tourists etc.), a locked room mystery where we are not given all the information & the launching of the Nordic Noir juggernaut are just some of this book's many crimes. The Swedish and American movie versions were ok. Gone Girl is a well written thriller with your classic dishonest narrator: deservedly popular for its unlikeable leads (I love that), twisty first half and downbeat ending Gone Girl deserved its success, unlike Dragon Tattoo. I thought the movie version did a pretty good job with the book. Tyler Perry was great and the Nancy Grace character was excellent. Gun Street Girl is the fourth novel in my own Sean Duffy Series. Sold a fraction of the other books but was shortlisted for the 2016 Edgar Award (best pbk original), the 2015 Ned Kelly Award, the 2016 Anthony Award (best pbk original), the 2016 Audie Award,was a Boston Globe "Best Book of 2015" and an Irish Times "Best Crime Novel of 2015." So there. No movie version in the offing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Hemingway's House

my much requested 2008 article on visiting Hemingway's house rescued at last from behind The Sunday Times's paywall. I imagine things have changed quite a bit since I was there and hopefully things are better now from an economic and curatorial standpoint
The secret policeman wasn’t smiling. It just looked like that because his false teeth didn’t fit correctly. I was relieved. If Isaac Babel is to be believed it’s when secret policeman start grinning at you that you should begin to worry.
            “Think about it,” he said as he ran his fingernails along the right lapel of a navy double breasted blazer that was miles too big for him. His eyes were dark and squinty and his skin was yellowy white. He was small and grey haired and admittedly not terribly menacing.
            “I’m sorry?” I said, unsure that I had heard him correctly.
            He repeated his offer. “Any book in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars,” he said in carefully annunciated English.
            I nodded to show that I had understood his proposition.
            I had spent the last twenty minutes examining the library in Hemingway’s Havana house - the Finca Vigia. There were thousands of books: first editions, engineering text books, old atlases, older dictionaries, galleys mailed to Hemingway for blurbs, review copies, gifts; many of them had been doodled over by Hemingway himself and several were extensively underlined and annotated. A bruised early copy of The Sun Also Rises was probably worth a couple of thousand and at the bar of the Ambos Mundos a man had told me that somewhere in these stacks was a signed Catcher in the Rye which I knew I could flog on eBay for at least fifty grand.
            The secret policeman tapped his foot, leaned backwards and placed his left hand on a cheetah skin which had been draped over a sofa. He patted it gingerly, like an underconfident Bond villain.
            The cheetah interested me. In his seminal 1958 Paris Review interview George Plimpton had described Hemingway’s house in Havana, and this room in particular, with meticulous detail. “The walls are lined with white painted bookcases from which books overflow to the floor...Hemingway stands when he writes in a pair of oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu.” Opposite the writing desk and directly in Hemingway’s field of view Plimpton noted “an armoire with a leopard skin draped across the top.”
Apart from the books, papers, bull fight posters and letters, Hemingway’s home was dominated by hunting trophies. Plimpton observed dead animals everywhere - skinned, mounted, stuffed and yet more carved from wood and ivory. He also found random bags filled with shotgun shells and carnivore teeth. But nowhere does he mention a cheetah. Heminway’s writing desk is still opposite the armoire but strangely Plimpton’s leopard skin has metamorphosed into the hide of a cheetah. The animals are difficult to mistake. Their pattern of spots, heads, and bodies are completely different and this beast currently being drummed upon by the secret policeman’s chubby fingers was definitely a cheetah not a leopard.
            Two possibilities presented themselves to me: either Plimpton had got it wrong about the leopard and the creature he had seen was in fact a cheetah or, more intriguingly, the skin had been replaced.
            “Are you English?” the secret policeman asked.
            “Uh...yeah...close enough,” I said.
            “I thought so. Ok, my friend, not two hundred. One hundred and fifty dollars for any book in his library. For an Englishman. Seventy five pounds.”
             I realized now that he had thought my silence a negotiating tactic. I attempted to disavow him of that notion. “Look, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know about this at all. I’m not sure if it’s...I actually think I have to go.”
            “I need to go back to my hotel.”
            “Why?” he asked.
            “Well, uhm, well, I need to go to the toilet for one thing,” I said with grave finality. I thought that would be the end of the matter. In the British Isles no one sober uses the word “toilet” unless they are quite desperate. In polite company it is taken as a sign that you are uncomfortable and at the mention of the word any decent host will allow you to escape with dignity.
            This nuance however was lost on the Cuban secret policeman
            “Go here. We have a W.C. Through there,” he said.
            I had no choice and in fifteen seconds I was in Ernest Hemingway’s famous water closet. Famous at least for biographers because it was here that he had kept a weight journal on the bathroom wall through various periods in the late fifties. Ahead of his time in many things, Hemingway had also gotten body consciousness a couple of decades before other American males.
            I was not terribly impressed. In William Faulkner’s house Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, I remember vividly examining a plan of Faulkner’s story ‘A Fable’ sketched on a wall. It was fascinating and wonderful, allowing you a peak into Faulkner’s mind at work.
            But this was not wonderful. This wasn’t what I wanted from macho, bold, Ernest Hemingway. This was self obsessed and weak. Depressing. I looked at the parade of figures and the scrawly explanations next to them: “210 pounds,” “215 pounds after drinking”, “205 pounds after diet.”
            I stopped reading after a time and instead began wondering how I was going to avoid the attentions of the secret policeman. Could I climb out the window and if so, what then? 
            There seemed to be no way out and I found my mind drifting back to the cheetah.
            Could the studious George Plimpton had erred about the beast’s correct species? Not impossible by any means. A dead leopard is the iconic image in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro so dead leopards were probably on Plimpton’s brain as he walked around the Finca Vigia avoiding Hemingway’s dozens of cats and listening to Ernest go on about how he used to play the cello and how King Lear cheered him up.
            With so much to take in many observers certainly could have misidentified the cheetah but Plimpton’s description of Hemingway’s foot rest as a lesser kudu made me think that he probably was very careful about what he wrote in the Paris Review and he probably got the species right.
            Perhaps the leopard had simply gotten moldy and been chucked out, but much more likely, a western collector had offered top dollar for ‘Ernest Hemingway’s Leopard’ and the Cuban authorities had sold it, replacing it with a cheetah, hoping that no one would ever notice.
            Well I had noticed and I wasn’t-
            “Come on, English,” the secret policeman growled.
            I left the toilet without flushing and went back to the hacienda. It was already becoming quite familiar. I’d been in here for what seemed like forever. Supposedly the Casa Hemingway is off limits to all but VIP visitors and even those aren’t allowed to manhandle anything, or, heaven forbid, read his books without gloves, or touch his furniture. Michael Palin has written humorously about his attempt to sit in Hemingway’s chair and how he was screamed at and nearly attacked by the Finca Vigia’s curators.
            But now I saw that all this superficial care and respect was for only for show and only when the cameras were rolling. As in any good plutocracy all goods and services were for sale. If you want to sit in Hemingway’s chair (the chair he never sat in, because, as Plimpton explained, he wrote standing up) it’ll cost you about ten dollars. And if you want to wander around Hemingway’s house and look into his beautiful library, just come at closing time and bring greenbacks, or better still, Euros...
            I had come late on a drizzly Tuesday in November 2007. I’d been a little worried because Lonely Planet Cuba informed me that if it was raining it was inadvisable to go to the Finca Vigia. Since no one was allowed into the house anymore because of petty theft the only way to see the interior was through the open window shutters and when it was raining the curators closed the shutters (though cunningly still charging you full price to get into the grounds).
            I had arrived just as a party of tourists were finishing their desultory exterior circuit of the house. In dreadful Monty Python English a bearded, gesticulating, sandal-wearing, Cuban tour guide was saying something about “Ava Gardener” or maybe “the garden” or “gardenas.”
            “Am I too late?” I asked one of the half dozen female curators as she began closing up for the night. 
            “Si, it is finished,” she said gloomily.
            “Oh dear, well, thank you,” I replied.
            I caught a quick glimpse of Hemingway’s bed and a few animal heads before the shutters on the east side of the house were closed.
            It was getting dark now and despite what I thought were fairly explicit instructions my taxi driver had taken off, so, suppressing my native reticence, I jogged to the mini bus and asked politely if they could give me a ride back to Havana. The tourists were up for it, but the guide said it was not possible for reasons of “insurance” or possibly “insolence” or “intransigence.” 
            I walked back to the house.
            When Hemingway had purchased the “Lookout Farm” in 1940 with the proceeds of For Whom the Bell Tolls the neighborhood of San Francisco de Paula had been a genteel village just outside of the city. Now San Francisco de Paula is a typical Havana suburban slum. Backed up sewers flow in the streets, the sidewalks are crumbling, pigs root in the gutters and children are to be seen combing trash heaps for anything remotely sellable. 
            On the way there taxis, indeed motor vehicles of any kind, seemed few and far between and the idea of  a long and complicated walk back to Havana in the rain was not appealing.
            I caught the eye of another of the female curators.
            “Can I, uh, can I possibly use your phone?” I asked her in a stuttering Hugh Grant voice which I hoped would assure her that I was not a local deadbeat and had in fact come a long way to see this place. As indeed I had, not as far as Notting Hill, but to fly to Cuba from Denver, you still have to go through either Mexico City or Montreal. I have tried both routes and both have their detriments. In Montreal you must put up with a plane load of salivating, obese, Québécois sex tourists and via Mexico City the Cuban authorities subject you to the indignities of a full body and luggage search to make sure you are not attempting to undermine the Revolution with subversive copies of Mexican Vogue or People en Espanol.
            “No, senor, no phone,” the female curator said looking behind her at a shadowy figure inside the house.
            I stood outside in the rain for a while, watching small yellow parrots shit on each other. Sadly this activity loses its luster surprisingly quickly.
            “Back to Havana then,” I said to myself and was about to brave the rooting pigs, scavenging children, and potential ne’er do wells when a short man in an enormous suit approached from somewhere behind my left ear.
            “Excuse me,” I said, startled.
            He nodded with satisfaction. Clearly he was well practiced at getting into people’s blind spots and disarming them with his ill fitting teeth.
            “Good morning,” he said in English and to be fair in England at this time it could have been in the wee hours. 
            “Hello,” I said.
            He offered his hand and I shook it, his jacket sleeve enveloping my wrist like that of a Neapolitan pickpocket.
            “You are an admirer of Comrade Hemingway?” he asked.
            “Come inside.”
            “Oh...thank you.”
            “Twenty dollars.”
            I removed my wallet from my jeans pocket and presciently kept it out.
            The house was extraordinarily beautiful. Except perhaps for the cheetah, it had been preserved almost exactly the way it had been when Hemingway had left it in 1959. Disarmingly compact and all on a single floor, even on this rainy day it radiated light, airiness and comfort. Blue tiles in the kitchen, a living room jam packed with books and period magazines, an old comforter on the bed. Borges once said that “paradise would be a kind of library” and but for all the dead African animals this would have been a kind of paradise.
            At first the secret policeman had been content to let me wander, but then he had hit upon the idea of bonus charges.
            Ten bucks for a photo sitting at Hemingway’s desk.
            Five bucks for a photo under the ibex head.
            Another ten for a browse through the library.
            The female curators - serious young women in their twenties - were too cowed to interfere but I could sense their disapproval and after a while I was itching to go.
            “Well thank you very much for showing me around and letting me look through the books, it was great,” I told him. 
            But that’s when the short, sallow-faced secret policeman had come out with his extraordinary offer. I could have any book, any book at all, in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars.
            An initial covetousness flooded through me. The first editions were what appealed most, especially ones by Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and perhaps if I looked hard enough I’d find that legendary inscribed Catcher in the Rye “Ernest, here’s remembering that time we spent liberating the Ritz bar, your buddy, Jerry.”
            Yes, it was tempting, but it wouldn’t do. How could I help break up this incredible library? What kind of a human being would I be? It would be like trading in plundered Nazi loot. Obviously I was not the first person the secret policeman had approached and apparently he had met with success before now, but, unfortunately for him this wasn’t my thing at all. Morally, legally and karmically it was all wrong.
            I made my bathroom excuse and on Hemingway's loo I had a good, long think and when I returned I knew that my mind was made up.
            “No. I’m sorry. I don’t want any books at all,” I said.
            The secret policeman made a fist, gave the cheetah a friendly bonk on the noggin and then, guiltily, he looked across the room at the curators. It was well after five thirty now and officially the Vigia was closed. They wanted to go home too but they knew better than to kick up a fuss. Still they must have been cramping his style because he gave them a curt dismissal with a wave of the hand.
            “One hundred dollars,” he hissed when they had gone. 
            “No, look, I’m sorry, I’m not negotiating, I really don’t want any of the books,” I said.
            The secret policeman frowned. “A hundred dollars, Englishman,” he said. “For an admirer of Comrade Hemingway that is nothing. Any book in the library for a hundred dollars. Fifty pounds.”
            “Please understand, I’m not trying to haggle with you, I just don’t want to do it. Thank you for the offer but I really don’t want to take one of Hemingway’s books,” I said.
            The secret policeman stared at me for a long time, sighed heavily and eventually pointed to the door next to the kitchen.
            I made a beeline for it and one of the remaining curators let me out.
            I walked down the muddy driveway that led to the street and of course my taxi driver was waiting for me, having just slipped away for a moment to get some cheap Venezuelan gas.
            It was pitch black as we drove through San Francisco de Paula. Cuba may have one of the best health care systems in Latin America, but it’s street lighting evidently did not extend very far into the suburbs of Havana.
            Once we were back into the Habana Vieja, however, it was a different story. There the bright lights reveal a much sadder set of circumstances than even the sordid little scene at Hemingway’s house.
            After dark the streets of Old Havana fill up with prostitutes and most of them seem to be barely into their teens. Their clients are European and Canadian and a few American men in from the cruise ships or package tours. Apologists for the Castro brothers talk about Cubans uncomplicated attitudes towards sex and money. Why not get paid for a night with a stranger when both parties gain from the experience? We Westerners, they say, are so hung up on morality that we are suspicious of the free-spirited, lusty Cubans.
            It’s nonsense of course. It’s nothing to do with Latin expansiveness and Western repression. It’s about a disastrously managed economy, endemic corruption, poverty, desperation and hunger.
            I reflected that the secret policeman too back at Finca Vigia was probably as much a victim as a practitioner. If he was willing to risk prison for a measly hundred bucks he must be in dire straits.
            My taxi driver left me near the pedestrian walkway known as the Prado and I ambled back to the Hotel Sevilla. Damp thirteen year old girls in denim skirts and high heels were hanging out under street lights while their pimps solicited me from bicycles.
            After a dozen “no gracias” and a couple of “fuck offs” I got back to the stately hotel where Graham Greene had written Our Man in Havana.
            I went upstairs to my room and sat on the edge of the bed.
            My head was light. The bitter taste on my tongue was adrenalin. Clearly, the pimps and the whores and the sad secret policeman and Hemingway’s melancholy toilet had unsettled me.
            I opened my journal. 
            “I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote.
            I thought it would be funny but there on the cool white page, in black ink, it wasn’t.
            When the inevitable adrenalin crash came I went down to the bar and had a couple of Mojitos. Those didn't help either. I was feeling very depressed. I went back to my room and lay down on the bed.
            The secret policeman was wrong, I’m not English, I’m Irish, and unlike our cousins over the water we have a weakness for sentiment and pathos.
            Tears filled my eyes. After a while I picked up the journal again. “I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote, “and I don’t feel good about it at all.”


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Who Is America's Greatest Living Novelist?

...Bobby D on the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row (no, really)...
How many times have I blogged "Meet Me in the Morning 56th and Wabasha" and then given the actual time and date of my book reading? About 23 it seems from some quick research. I don't know if I ever actually revealed that that of course is a line from one of my favourite songs from the best Bob Dylan album Blood On The Tracks (just pipping Blonde on Blonde). Bob Dylan's win of the Nobel Prize in literature has set off a torrent of anguish amongst America's literary elite. A torrent of anguish I am not going to get on board with. I like Bobby D and have seen him croaking away in concert 3 times. Besides they've given the Nobel Lit Prize to Winston Churchill as a thank you for saving Europe in WW2, to Bertrand Russell for living a long time and saying nice things about Sweden, to Karl Gjellerup for being Danish and to Svetlana Alexievich for interviewing people and writing down accurately what they said. The Nobel Prize in literature isn't quite as political a prize as the Nobel Peace Prize but it's not far off. It isn't exactly worthless but it shouldn't really be taken that seriously...I think the whole thing with Dylan was probably a set up so they can establish a precedent and give it to ABBA next year. 

Still if you were going to give a prize to America's greatest living novelist who would you give it to? Last year and this year the bookies took a lot of money on Philip Roth, this year Don DeLillo came in for consideration. I like those guys but out of the big four dinosaurs: Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy and Pynchon its the latter two whom I like a little better. This, of course, is just a personal preference and I'm not going to waste your time arguing that Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy are better than Roth and DeLillo. Marilynne Robinson also gets mentioned a lot for the Nobel Prize as does Joyce Carol Oates. I'm down with Ms Robinson but not so much with Joyce. As you all know I worship at the feet of Donna Tartt and I think if you were looking for an outside the box choice instead of going to Bob Dylan what about the great Ursula K Le Guin? My better half is a champion of Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz so we could throw them in the mix. Alice Walker gets spoken about a lot as the greatest living African American novelist (you do know Toni Morrison is still alive don't you?) but I am not a fan of her work. I like the fact that she's a crackpot but her novels...meh. Maybe the youth vote? There is the wonderful Danielle Evans - she's only 26. In general people who dont teach writing in a university are always more interesting than people who do and working class writers are generally better and more interesting than upper middle class writers. They have real jobs and real experiences. Wanky white bread posh people have on the whole nothing to say and they say it so damn tediously. My favourite 3 working class novelists who are still alive are Dan Woodrell, James Ellroy and Don Winslow. A few years ago I would have had Harvey Pekar on the list and Charles Bukowski and maybe James Fogle but they are no longer with us. Anyway enough blather here's my top 15 in really no strong particular order: 

1. Thomas Pynchon
2. Cormac McCarthy
3. Toni Morrison
4. James Ellroy
5. Marilynne Robinson 
6. Philip Roth
7. Donna Tartt
8. Jonathan Lethem
9. Don Winslow
10. Dan Woodrell
11. Don DeLillo
12. Amy Tan
13. Michael Chabon
14. Sandra Cisneros
15. Jonathan Franzen

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Cartel Wins The Dagger Award

I was shortlisted for the Dagger Award this year, so you'd think that I'd be bummed out I didn't win last night. I'm not. The winner was The Cartel which is a book I believe has raised the bar for crime fiction and that can only be a good thing. Really good crime writing is really good writing, period...Here's my review from last year which originally appeared in a slightly different form (no swearing and fewer histrionics) in the newspaper. My prediction at the end proved prescient...
Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the great American crime novels of the last twenty years. Indeed Winslow, Dan Woodrell and James Ellroy so raised the bar of American crime fiction in the early 2000's that every other writer in the genre has been struggling to keep up. You can't get away with weak prose and poor characterisation in US crime writing any more. (If you're a shitty prose writer and you don't care about your characters you should probably write literary fiction - they still tolerate that kind of thing over there.) 

The Power of the Dog told the story of Art Keller a DEA agent fighting the drug wars in the 1970s and 80s particularly in Mexico where he ran afoul of Adan Barrera, the dauphin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloody, violent, scary and brilliant The Power of the Dog was not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But Winslow was not being deliberately sensationalist he was just telling it like it was. The Power of the Dog, like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand unpacks the foundation myths of America - the Republic was not founded and maintained by philosopher kings but by violent men fighting other violent men for land and power and money. 

The Cartel is the sequel to The Power of the Dog which again takes up Art Keller's story. Dog ended with Keller divorced and trying to live in anonymous motels as his various Mexican enemies tracked him down. He has been cut loose by the Feds and must survive on his wits and his dwindling financial resources. After Adan Barrera escapes from his prison and resumes his quest to be the patron of patrons of all the cartels in Mexico, Keller is recalled to the life by the DEA. 

The Cartel is a fictionalised account of what's really been happening in Mexico for the last decade and as such it is terrifying. We get to see the Narco wars between the cartels, the corruption of all branches of the Mexican army and police and finally the appearance of the good guys - the Mexican Marines and in particular their special forces unit the untouchable FES. The Cartel isn't so much a crime novel as a war novel and Keller and his comrades are soldiers in that war. If you don't like war novels this probably is not the book for you as there are some pretty strong scenes of combat and violence. My favourite part of the novel comes near the end when an old Mexican gentleman named Don Pedro defends his house against the Zeta Cartel, Straw Dogs style...

Keller's character - Catholic, half Mexican, smart, honourable, is brilliantly drawn as is the character of his nemesis the chilly, intelligent, cunning Adan Barrera. Winslow's women are written as well as his men and there are many extraordinarily brave women in the book who are based on real people; indeed The Cartel is a tribute of sorts to the incredibly courageous Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta (right) who appears, thinly veiled, as Keller's love interest (and who was - in real life - tortured to death by the narcos). 

No novel is without its flaws and I'll admit that I became disheartened by all the murder, mayhem and mutilation in the final third of the novel. But that's part of the point of the book too. The war was relentless. And lest that put you off let me emphasise again, that The Cartel, like The Power of the Dog, is a crime masterpiece. It is being taken very seriously by serious reviewers (that cool image (top above right) is from the New Yorker review.) If there were any justice they'd be giving it the National Book Award or the Pulitzer and at the very least it should get the Edgar and the Dagger next year. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

The Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want the genuine article I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join ISIS than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. aghast when characters are walking around with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Engima code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
Anyway, this is how I make tea. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves (in a tea infusion ball) or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below. 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer one tea spoon. 
6. Stir. Bob's your uncle: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Doggie Books

Some of my favourite doggie books:
1. The Power of the Dog - 2003 Don Winslow masterpiece about an American DEA agent and his dealings with the cruel Sinaloa Cartel.
2. The Dog of the South - 1979 Charles Portis masterpiece about Ray Midge whose wife, Norma, has run off to Mexico with Guy Dupree, her ex-husband in Ray's Ford Torino.
3. Dog Soldiers - 1974 Robert Stone masterpiece about Ray Hicks, ex USMC Vietnam Vet, survivalist and autodidact trying to follow the path of Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism while smuggling heroin from Vietnam.
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time - an autistic boy who counts in prime numbers (love that) finds a dead dog in his garden and as he solves the mystery he realises that things in his family are not as they first appear.
5. To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Wills's award winning time travelling novel that begins - if I'm remembering correctly - in Coventry Cathedral. Kind of a Yankee version of Hitchhiker. BTW to say nothing of the dog is the subtitle of Three Men In A Boat which you must read. Its funny. You think its not going to be funny but even 120 years later it is.
6. Dog Years - Gunter Grass's ponderous but good novel about growing up in Danzig before, during and after the war.
7. Dogs of God - Pinckney Benedict's great little backwoods tail of a drug lord called Tannhauser living in wild and wooly West Virginia.
8. Straw Dogs - AKA The Siege of Trencher's Farm (1969) is a wonderful little noir novel by Scottish author Gordon Williams
9. Dogs of War - Freddie Forsyth's tale of mercenaries in Africa. This and Jackal are his two best I think.
10. Rain Dogs - Adrian McKinty hops on the dog book bandwagon with his Ned Kelly, Dagger Award and Theakston Award nominated novel. (My favourite of the Duffy books I think.)