Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ordinary People

Title: Ordinary People

Author: Judith Guest

Year of publication: 1977.  Fontana edition 1981.

Back cover blurb: 'AN ORDINARY FAMILY - Shaken by the tragic death of one teenage son - face new heartbreak.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: I've long been a fan of Robert Redford's film version of Ordinary People, in which Judd Hirsch plays the world's best psychiatrist (too bad he's fictional), and we find Hollywood taking a long, unsentimental gaze at the world of everyday mental health - a rarity indeed.  In it, and the novel on which it is based, a family recovering from the death of one son in a boating accident must now deal with the attempted suicide of his guilt-ridden brother.
   Perhaps even more so than the film, Guest's book captures the reality of grief - a constant scream in the background as life goes on.  It's dropped off the radar in the UK, but well worth tracking down.  A warm, humane book that asks us to go a bit easier on ourselves.

Random paragraph: 'A tiny seed opens slowly inside his mind.  In the hospital the seed would grow and begin to produce thick, shiny leaves with fibrous veins running through them.  More leaves to come.  Like tiny, curled up fists they will hit at him.  He tightens his grip on the arms of the chair.  The wood is sticky and wet under his hands.  He wets his lips nervously.  "What time is it?"'



Title: Futility

Author: William Gerhardie

Year of publication: 1922.  Penguin edition 1974.

Status: Completed

Back cover blurb: 'Written shortly after the First World War, and published in 1922, this novel made its young author an instant success.  Gerhardie uses his wartime experiences in Futility to throw into relief his main theme; this was perhaps the first work to strike the 'waiting' motif that was to become fashionable many years later with Beckett's Godot.  Against a tragically unchanging background is set the story of an Englishman brought up in Russia and the pathos of his growing love for Nina, the second of three bewitching daughters.  Their father gathers about him an army of wrangling dependants, but his hopes of a fortune rise while his actual fortune diminishes.  When asked at a crucial stage what he will do he decides, "I think I'll wait.  It can't be long now."'

Reading reveals: Not really a Lost Book, more a declared classic that not many people bother with and goes out of print quite a lot.  I was attracted to reading a novel with the most unappealing title imaginable, just for reasons of perversity.
   Set in Russia either side of the Revolution, the absurd story of Futility is as described above.  Although stylistically it's very much trad, the internal logic is quietly modernist.  It's sort of 'cosy Kafka', with all the characters somehow conspiring to ensure that nothing ever resolves for any of them.  Pleasingly odd.

Random paragraph: 'They had been sitting silently for a time.  Nina seemed sad; Sonia and Vera sulky.  It was twilight, but no one had thought of switching on the light.  No one would dance.  I played the piano for a while, and then stopped.'


Tuesday, 27 May 2014


Title: MacBird!

Author: Barbara Garson

Year of publication: 1966.  Penguin edition 1967

Back cover blurb: '"MacBird! is one of the best and most-needed political parodies of the post-war period."
   Robert Brustein
"I have nothing to say about the political truth of this play, but I am sure a kind of genius has gone into the writing."
   Robert Lowell
"To the artists of the stage, who give us all mankind in all its disguises and so give us ourselves as we truly are, I pay tribute..."
   Lyndon B Johnson
   27 March 1966
   (a statement for World Theater Day)'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Do you like Shakespeare?  Do you like satirical plays about Lyndon B Johnson?  Then Macbird! may as well have been written especially for you.  A product of the sixties underground theatre (originally published by the Grassy Knoll Press), it's a pretty effective mash-up of Macbeth and the assassination of JFK and LBJ's subsequent presidency.  Alluding to the 'LBJ did it' school of thought, it's savage stuff, with Kennedy getting shot off-stage just a few years after the actual event.
   A Black Muslim, Marxist and Beatnik Witch set the tone, and although you'd need some hefty knowledge of the time to appreciate the details, the quality of the writing means its not a total period piece, even though it was presumably designed to auto-destruct soon after being written.  Doesn't appear to have been performed since 1968, which makes sense.

Random lines: 'REPORTER: Your majesty, how do you plan to deal
   With rebel groups which thrive in Viet Land?
   MACBIRD: What rebel groups?  Where is this Viet Land?
   Who gave them folks permission to rebel?'


Friday, 23 May 2014

Lost Book Library Reading Round-Up no. 15

The final Lost Book Library Reading Round-Up.  After this, new entries will adopt a whole new mutant form that will terrify and arouse in equal measure.

The Killing Gift by Bari Wood

Status: Completed

Very enjoyable supernatural police procedural. This is the book that 'Lamia' by Tristan Travis could have been.  An unforeseen side-effect of an early X-Ray machine used during pregnancy leads to the birth of a child that people can't help but dislike.  She turns out to have psychic powers she herself is unaware of, and anyone who crosses her ends up mysteriously and horribly dead.  Enter a curious policeman seeking to solve the mystery.  As ever, I wasn't totally convinced by the ending, but overall, a quirky, imaginative book that explores the instinctive distrust of those that seem other.  Its utter obscurity is undeserved.

Punish Me With Kisses by William Bayer

Status: Completed

Somewhat sordid sex thriller oddity.  A promiscuous young woman is murdered, leaving her dowdy younger sister to explore her kinky life and solve the crime.  Along the way there is much identity-shifting, and a crazy sub-plot involving a cat-centred form of psychotherapy that leads to a draw-dropping twist.  Grubby but engaging.

Man In White by Johnny Cash

Status: Abandoned p. 56

For a devil-may-care rockabilly with a take-no-prisoners attitude to life and a fuck-you mentality towards authority, Johnny Cash devoted a lot of his time to unquestioning subservience to the Higher Power of God.  The introduction to this novelised account of the life of Paul the Apostle is well worth reading, detailing as it does Cash's near-death encounter with an ostrich.  The book itself is pretty much the Bible with the gaps filled in with extensive historical research.  It's not bad, although everyone pretty much speaks exposition, but also not compelling enough to demand a full read.

The Actress by Henry Denker

Status: Abandoned p. 39

Joyously lurid story of a seductive actress and her mental health problems, populated entirely by characters incapable of sticking to the point during important conversations ('It made dark stains on her black leotard.  Dark stains....').  If it were a film I'd watch to the end, but a whole book of it would take up too much valuable Buzzfeed time.

A Chemical Romance by Jenny Fabian

Status: Abandoned p. 18

Glam-era scenester decadence.  Far too much astrology to be bothering with.

Dangler by Charles Gaines

Status: Completed

If asked to imagine a novel written by the inventor of Paintball, the average person in the street could be forgiven for imagining a bad one.  Dangler, however, is actually pretty decent.  A product of the seventies crisis of masculinity that brought you Deliverance and Straw Dogs, it tells of a outdoor activity park manager who attempts to make his elite clientele regain their sense of innate superiority over the lower orders through gruelling wilderness exercises.  Needless to say, it all goes wrong.  The novel sags in the middle when, just when you expect it to go full-on crazy, it instead descends into soapiness and some tedious sub-plot about tax.  By the end, however, it's all rather gripping.  Let us now enjoy Charles Gaines's author photo.