Sunday, June 19, 2005


Book Meme Whatsit

Since everybody else seems to have filled in one of these, and at half six in the morning with no sleep I'm too tired for righteous indignation about anything, I thought I'd join in. I am, after all, the sort of annoying tosser who likes to give people my opinion even, and perhaps especially, if no-one has asked for it. So, here goes.

So Dr, have you ever had a crush on a literary figure?

No, not really. I did read one book, though, when I was in the first flush of adolescence, which did cause a certain amount of lust. I can't remember the title of the book, or what it was about, but it contained a character called Bernice, who entered her friends motorcycle sidecar with a different friend. The journey was problematic for some reason, and she ended in a sort of melee with this other fellow who got a good look at her split-crotch knickers. I recall thinking that no man, other than myself, should ever have that much luck in life.

How many books do you own?

About one hundred. I prefer the library - much cheaper.

What is the last book you bought?

I bought two at the same time, actually. The first was 'Gold Coast', by Elmore Leonard. I'm a bit of a fan of Leonard generally - pretty good for pulp fiction, I would say - but I'd been looking for 'Gold Coast' for ages. The reason is that I absolutely adore the made-for-TV film based on the book, called 'Elmore Leonard's Gold Coast.' It's one of those films I feel just a tiny bit ashamed of liking, but really it's rather wonderful. Great characters, a plot that flies along at a decent clip, gorgeous scenery of Miami, Lauderdale and Key West, a beatiful score, and one of the best villain performances captured on film. Jeff Kober is superb as the brutal, hilarious, and downright evil Roland Crowe, a shylock who swaggers around town in range clothes and a cowboy hat, and does such anti-social activities as throwing people from high buildings and lying in wait in people's flats with a loaded pump-action shotgun. Indeed, so well does Kober play his role, that I always kind of want him to come through in the end. Because of the respect I have for the film, therefore, I was keen to read the source material.

The other book was 'Mr Pye' by Mervyn Peake. I've read this once before, but I can remember nothing about it. A friend of mine has been ribbing me about the fact he owns a copy and I don't for years, so obviously I had to put the record straight.

Jeff Kober is Roland Crowe. A magnificently over-the-top performance. Great stuff. Can a villain ever really be a villain if he isn't wearing a cowboy hat?

What was the last book you read?

The improbably gripping 'Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience And What Makes Us Human' by Matt Ridley. It's a subject I have a great interest in, and Ridley does a great job presenting all the important details. At times the text can be totally impenetrable:

'What do BDNF, GAD65 and diazepam - the three things that can affect critical periods - have in common? The answer is in the neurotransmitter GABA: GAD65 makes it, diazepam mimics it and BDNF regulates it. Since GABA was implicated in the filial imprinting of the chick, it looks plausible that the GABA system will prove to be central to critical periods of all kinds.'

And so on. If you can get past the frequent dense passages, however, there are many fascinating facts to be learned: did you know that, as a proportion of body weight, chimpanzee testicles are 16 times greater than gorilla testicles? Furthermore, this difference is due to the type of food eaten, of all possibilities. Or did you know that, at some point between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, we simply lose the ability to change accent completely to match our surroundings? The book informs of all these, and many more, interesting facts, and does so with a humour rare in scientific writing.

Lacking cojones.

Name five books that mean a lot to you.

1) 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. I love dance music, and I particularly love northern soul, as a glimpse at my links list should show. No book does as much justice to that scene as this one, telling many, many interesting stories and fascinating facts. The whole history of dance is charted, from the moment Jimmy Saville invited some of his mates around, to the superclubs of the 1990s (which Brewster and Broughton righly give short shrift to). It is not only authoritative, but entertaining as well, packed as it is with anecdotes of the most important DJs and music scene figures. A riveting good read, totally authoritative, and the book that helped shape a passion that now defines me.

2) 'McTeague', by Frank Norris. If it hadn't been for his tragically early death, Frank Norris would be a name that towered in the annals of American literature. My favourite naturalist novel of all time, it charts the courting, marriage, and slow and painful break-up of a couple living in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century San Francisco. Beautiful, charming, and decastatingly painful, it goes where many writers would be afraid to travel. Furthermore, it contains perhaps my favourite lines of literature ever written:

'The instant that Trina gave up, the instant she allowed him to kiss her, he thought less of her . . . . Perhaps he dimly saw that this must be so, that it belonged to the changeless order of things - the man desiring the woman . . . . for what she witholds; the woman worshipping the man for what she yields up to him. With each concession gained the man's desire cools; with every surrender made the woman's desire increases. But why should it be so?'

Terribly, tragically true.

3) 'Blott On The Landcape' by Tom Sharpe. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever written a farce as well as Sharpe can. I had the devil of a job deciding which of his novels to include - I was oh so close to choosing 'Ancestral Vices', for the creation of Walden Yapp, who is comic genius. His pathetic attempts to dispose of the corpse of the hospitable dwarf who sheltered him are the stuff of legend. Part of the beauty of Sharpe is hsi incessantly negative characterisation: as one of the reviewers on Amazon puts it, 'the male characters are unsympathetic pedantics and deviants; women are often hideous gorgons.' Exactly the same is true of 'Blott On The Landscape', which finally gets the nod because of the extent of the perversions of Sir Giles (and before they can be dismissed as unrealistic, remember Stephen Milligan) and the sheer hideousness of Lady Maude, genuinely the world's most horrific heroine. One writer once said of 'McTeague', 'never before has a writer treated his hero with so much contempt.' I would submit that, in the case of 'Blott On The Landscape', never has a writer treated his heroine with so much contempt. It is rioutously amusing. Buy a copy!

4) 'The Wind In The Willows' by Kenneth Grahame. I couldn't do this quiz without mentioning a childhood favourite, and 'Wind In The Willows' is probably it. The copy I have is beautifully illustrated by Inga Moore, and oh so rarely for a British book, is printed upon quality paper, so it won't fall apart. The story itself is a classic - love, betrayal, adventure and small furry animals. What more could you want?

5) 'The CEO Of The Sofa' by PJ O'Rourke. I am not a particularly political person, which is, I think, why I enjoy O'Rourke's cynicism about politics and politicians so very much. The passage on the impeachment of Clinton is, without doubt, my favourite political writing ever. I don't believe there has been a funnier non-fiction book in the last decade. It really is bloody marvellous.

Fuck me*, I included The CEO of the Sofa in one of these memes too, and you're absolutely right, it is one of the funniest political books written ever. I love the book so much that when I was passing by a bookstore and saw copies of the book in the bargain basement bin, I bought six of them to give away to friends and relatives.

I can't actually remember the bit about Clinton's impeachement, but here are some of my favourite bits (from memory):

"Ah, Earth Day. I was there, on the first march for Ecological Awareness, back in the 60s. We found it, as I recall, behind the baseball stands. A guy named Groovy was selling it for a quarter."

"Environmentalists want to assert control over all of nature, over the way everything is run. What could be more authoritarian than that?"

*Not to be taken literally.
It's around about page one hundred, if I recall correctly. There are too many great lines to quote, but perhaps my absolute favourite would be:

'The stud puppy himself ran off to do things such as view tornado damage. That way, when he looked like a sorry sack of rubbish, he looked like he was sorry for someone other than himself.'

Wonderful stuff.
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