Wednesday, November 13, 2013

{reviews} bleak books: barnard, west, block

Whoa, so... 
                                       with reviewing. 

I'll start with three books offering a bleak - but more or less amusing - look at the seedier side of the lives of academics, journalists, and, er, hit men.

Robert Barnard Death of an Old Goat (1974)

Professor Wickham was giving a tutorial. Or rather, he was being given one. Every year he put Hardy as late in the term as possible, hoping that by then his first-year students would have become reasonably chatty. This was because he never could be quite sure which Hardy novel it was he had read. Whichever it was, it had left on his mind a vague impression of doom and landscape, but nothing much else remained.
This is a very funny book about academia and country Australia. Barnard (who died this year) has a brilliant eye for the difficult life facing the second-rate Oxbridge academic exiled to an uncomfortable and ugly rural university ("Even the Queen had managed to avoid it on most of her visits to Australia, and there were few places in Australia of which that could be claimed.") of the type which sprang up in Australia from the 1950s onwards. 

The 'old goat' is Professor Belville-Smith, an elderly Oxford don on a lecture tour of the provinces. He is a typically dry academic figure, full of snobbish distaste - and "senile malice" - for the colleagues he encounters ("tut-tut[ting] mentally at their vowel-sounds and their shirts"); and no one is particularly looking forward to listening to him either, given he "had been delivering that lecture since 1922" (!). But it would seem that the Old Goat knows something about one of the academics he encounters, and what he knows will lead to his brutal death... 

The crime was fairly easy to figure out, but this book was elevated above the ordinary for me by Barnard's absolutely wicked sense of humour about the snobbishness of Australian academia ("This is what one gets for employing Adult Education lecturers who got their degrees at Leeds, thought Wickham grimly.") and the rural 'squattocracy' who provided the social background to all the university's activities ("'Just like the Wickhams to let the drink run out,' said Mrs McKay, a little tipsily, to Mrs Lullham. 'They’re only academics, after all, however much they try to hide it.'"). 

The actual crime, and the inexperienced macho racist cop assigned to solve it, were far less interesting than the setting and eccentric characters who-[might have]-dunnit. (I discovered this book thanks to clothes in books.)

Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

"Perhaps I can make you understand. Let's start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he's tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator."
Ouch. What a book. Like being mentally excoriated with a wire brush. Like the best sort of totally black satire. No glimmer of relief, no hint of light, and certainly no hint of escape in here. But also funny - well, sort of funny. Uncomfortable, ghastly funny... 

What hope is there for the writer of the lonely hearts column ("the priests of twentieth-century America") in Depression America? Alcoholic, depressed, unloved and unlovable ("his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat"), prone to fighting, poor at grasping cues, misunderstood, self-defeating ("he stumbled purposely, so that she would take his confusion for honest feeling"), numb from suffering ("more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife"), doomed... 

There's a lot going on here about the body too that I think I haven't properly grasped (when I wikipedia-ed it, apparently it is "Bergsonian" - I am in no way enlightened. Also existential. And Expressionist. Hmmm.). How can something so horribly bleak also be funny? 

A classic: I'm glad I've finally read, but oh how miserable I felt after I finished.

Lawrence Block Hit Man (1998)

He took the exit for the mall and found a parking place, taking careful note of where it was so he could find it again. Once, a couple of years ago, he had parked a rental car at a mall in suburban Detroit without paying attention to where he’d parked it or what it looked like. For all he knew it was still there.
A likeable hit man? A dog-loving stamp-collecting likeable hit man in need of a good psychiatrist? The 'voice' of Block's professional killer is just wonderful - sort of pensive, thoughtful, idealistic, melancholy, desperate to feel needed - a 'good' man despite his terrible day job. This book is a series of short stories ostensibly about John Keller's assignments, but really about what has made him the man he is today. If you like slowish little polished gems (someone sweetening a coffee "stirred it long enough to dissolve marble chips") about moral ambiguity, then these are for you.
He did that sometimes. Looked up his name in the phone books of strange cities, as if he might actually find himself there. Not another person with the same name, that happened often enough, his was not an uncommon name. But find himself, his actual self, living an altogether different life in some other city.
Lawrence Block died this year too (I see a theme here). This is the first of his books I've read, but I'm very keen to read more now. (I found this book thanks to belle, book and candle.)


Note [27/11/2013]: Brona remind me that I should link my Barnard post to her wonderful AusReading Month. Please do visit her blog for links to many, many interesting posts on Australian books and writers.

{READ IN 2017}

  • 48.
  • MAY
  • 47.
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]