erasing clouds

Book Reviews

by Anna Battista

Nick Hornby, How to Be Good (Viking)

Bet some of you are already rejoicing at hearing that the author of Fever Pitch and High Fidelity has just published another novel. Bet also that some of you are going to be rather disillusioned to hear that this time there's no football or music involved in the whole thing, though, fear not, Nick Hornby's typical charts and lists of beloved or hated people are always there. How To Be Good narrates the story of Kate, a married woman and a mother of two kids. Kate is a doctor, hence, she reckons, she must be a good person, though she starts having a few doubts about her noble soul when she tries to divorce her husband David on the phone. After all Kate isn't totally wrong about getting rid of her husband: David is also known as "the Angriest Man in Holloway" and he is a total failure as a writer. But things will change and David will indeed experiment a radical transformation when he meets a mysterious healer, DJ GoodNews, who turns him into somebody disgustingly and artificially good. "Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up," wrote St. Paul in the "Letters to the Corinthians", but David turns into an extremely good Samaritan liable to give out his kids' toys and their dinner to show the others he's changed and has turned into a third millennium St. Francis. Living under the same roof with David becomes a nightmare for Kate, whereas for the reader it becomes utterly boring to read about their vicissitudes. Nick Hornby seems to get so entangled about the moral issue of being good that he brings the story to an unsolved conclusion that doesn't satisfy the reader. Probably this is the least intriguing novel by Nick Hornby up to now and what is even more unnerving is the fact that it is this title that has finally confirmed the author's presence into the Olympus of hip writers. How To Be Good can be considered not a good novel at all, but the card Nick Hornby presented at literature festivals and mundane events organised here and there, events that only managed to reinforce the public opinion that Hornby is not the world's favourite writer, but the hip people's favourite figurehead to take a picture with. And another thing: I might be a cynic and evil bastard, but the novel doesn't explore another level of how to be good. I mean GOOD at writing.(

B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (Picador)

"Christie Malry is a simple person," B.S. Johnson writes right at the beginning of this book, and the first description of his character doesn't give the slightest hint about what might come after. Indeed Christie is only seventeen when the novel starts and when he realises that, being his one and only desire in life to acquire some money and having not born a rich kid, the best thing to do is to go and get a job in a bank, where at least he'll live next to money or next to those who own it. After learning the method called Double-Entry Book-Keeping, Christie decides to apply it to his own life with disastrous (that is, for the rest of the world…) consequences. When he begins working for a chocolate cakes factory, Christie starts recording his life on a book divided in credits and debts, or in Christie's case, in recompenses and aggravations. Here he lists all the offences received by the rest of the world and all the ways in which he paid them back, from simply stealing a rubber pad from his office to bomb hoaxes to poisoning the water of London and other criminal acts. "I write especially to exorcise, to remove from myself, from my mind, the burden having to bear some pain, the hurt of some experience: in order that it may be over there, in a book, and not here in my mind," B.S.Johnson wrote in his introduction to Aren't You Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? and exorcising Christie's fears and hate for the world is what the author does, in a very peculiar style. Better known for works such as Alberto Angelo, in which he discusses his own literary techniques and cuts a hole in a page to prove the reader that it is possible to see the future through the text, or such as The Unfortunates, a novel written on twenty-seven loose-leaf sections which can be arranged as the reader wants, B.S.Johnson, was a master in writing experimental novels and in capturing the reader's mind. In Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, the author appears almost at the end of the novel, to have a chat with the main character and reassure him that he'll get everything from life, at least till the writer himself will pen Christie's tragic end. Revived by Paul Tickell's film with a screenplay by Simon Bent, B.S. Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is an essential masterpiece to add to your reading list. (

James Kelman, Translated Accounts(Secker & Warburg)

Are tortured minds translatable? Are the psychological and physical pains inflicted on innocent human beings by a regime translatable? Are the mind scars left by a regime's oppression translatable and if put on the paper can they be decoded and read? Here's what probably wondered James Kelman before starting to write his latest novel. Or perhaps he hasn't. Acclaimed Glaswegian author Kelman has been working on Translated Accounts since 1994, when his Booker Prize winner novel How Late It Was, How Late was published. Condemned for using in his writings the so-called "language of the gutter", that is an everyday language, often completed by the Scottish orthography, and gifted with the-well-received-by-ordinary-people-but-hated-by-a-posh-literary-establishm ent four letter word, Kelman started his writing career in the '70s, when he published his first collection of short stories, An old pub near the Angel. More short stories, novels, plays and essays followed from that first anthology, all works that underlined Kelman's aim: writing about what you know in the language you know. With Translated Accounts, Kelman seems to move on from his former terrain, in fact as he states in his 'Preface', "the 'translated accounts' are by three, four or more individuals domiciled in an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation." The reports were then translated into English by non-mother tongue speakers and transcribed into a computer, the two processes, the latter in particular, have ended up in disrupting the text even more. The novel is divided into fifty-four chapters, in which the witnesses relate their experiences, going from simply relating their thoughts, to witnessing a group of soldiers killing a politician, to drinking in a bar while outside there's a shooting going on. Sex experiences and post-coitus reflections merge with the broken reports about tortures and rapes or about a man dying and are intermingled with a few fragments from a letter, a discussion during a political meeting or a dream of the sea. The tension reaches a climax whenever the language becomes totally intelligible as for example in one of the first chapters, the fifth, in which the sentences break up in words and the words in letters, the letters in symbols and everything is mixed up adding to the confused witness' report a further problem in understanding as it happens in the sentence, "SummaryInformationhatlanguageor@ifdotcomeor@ifdotcomiftilddnottild," a sequence of symbols and words disrupted by the computer transcription. What Kelman doesn't say, what is hidden in those incomplete lines and in a broken English spoken by non-natives, ends up in haunting the readers' minds. Though there's a sentence in the novel "They spoke a language that rendered them inferior but they were not inferior, they did not allow it" that, if extrapolated, might be referring to Scotland and Scottish people speaking their own language, the novel doesn't allow any identification with a particular state. The country Kelman chooses to write about stands between imagination and reality, Kelman might be taking direct inspiration from his experiences in Istanbul where artists and writers were prosecuted by the State Security Court, but might be referring to the Balkans, the ethnic-cleansing and to the refugees flying away from one country to another, to the racism that still afflicts the whole world or to South American regimes or even to the new third millennium regimes covered up under the banner of democracy. Certainly in Translated Accounts there are all Kelman's experiences: from his fight against any form of censorship and in favour of the freedom for freedom of thought and expression, to his campaign against racism, from his Freedom for Ismail Besikçi campaign to his supporting campaign for writers in exile and for one's voice to be heard, the whole expressed in his style, by his characters, who are simple nobodies who might be just everyone, even us. With Translated Accounts Kelman is not trying to monitor the state of civil liberties, nor trying to defend anybody, nor even empowering his characters, he's just writing, in scattered thoughts, what happens to people. Probably Kelman's novel will send off quite a few professors of literature from the supposed establishment to analyse the language and formally jerk off in their essays trying to compare Kelman to Joyce or to any other writer, trying to find a tangible meaning in the structure and in the words of Translated Accounts. Possibly Kelman's book will send off his genuine readers to reflect on what surrounds us. The pen, to quote the title of a public meeting organised a while back in Edinburgh by Amnesty International, is mightier than the sword. And James Kelman's pen is even mightier than any fucking regime. (

Stuart Walton, Out of It: a cultural history of intoxication (Hamish Hamilton)

"Intoxication is a universal theme. There are no recorded instances of fully formed societies anywhere in history that have lived without the use of psychoactive substances," Stuart Walton writes in his book Out of It, and with such an introduction the reader can rightly suspect that this tome, clad in a blinding orange hip cover, is going to be exactly like the other average books on drugs. On the contrary, Walton manages to carry out an interesting research which starts with a report on intoxication during the ancient Greek times and exposes a theory which has probably always been evidently there, but none ever dared admitting: "intoxication belongs to all of us. It is our birthright, our inheritance and our saving grace." The Dyonisian orgies had wine, the Eleusinian Mysteries had the mysterious hallucinogenic called kykeon and in modern times the ravers had ecstasy, hence intoxication has always been part of the human beings' DNA. But Walton doesn't limit his research to this statement: he analyses various drugs from the legal caffeine, tobacco and alcohol to illegal intoxicants such as heroine, coke or MDMA and the various laws and campaigns against drugs. Particularly relevant are the chapters in which the author notes how drugs are condemned by various religions and how the campaigns against them were a total failure. It sounds rather difficult to analyse in a book the late 1800's Temperance campaign against alcohol in the States and the rather comic experience of Carry Nation who tried to ban alcohol by physically destroying pubs, the Volstead Act and all the acts that followed it, the present laws and wars on drugs courtesy of the governments of the whole world, but Walton uses a simple language which renders what might be a boring tome, a pleasant reading. The book closes with a chapter on how intoxicants gave inspiration to writers and musicians: Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, East 17's Brian Harvey and Oasis' Noel Gallagher, are all mentioned together with a very inebriated Socrates described in Plato's Symposium. In Plato's work, the Greek philosopher ends up being on a binge which will show that even the father of philosophy was "a capacious drinker" and this will indirectly confirm to today's reader that, even though the medical and governmental authorities might deny it, after all, "INTOXICATION IS A HUMAN RIGHT."(

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