Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e, being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books, or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored, as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.  

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Book Review: Not Quite Lost

Not Quite Lost, by Roz Morris, is a travel diary written with an underlying sense of fun. Each of the places the author visits is recounted as a series of anecdotes such as one might share with a friend on a night out. It is a wryly humorous account of the author’s travels, mainly in the UK out of season. She is drawn to places with a quiet history, which she seeks out and shares. The stories are packed with an eye for the unusual in people and place. What could be seen as an unpleasant walk, a challenging drive or disappointing accommodation, becomes an adventure when viewed through her droll and enquiring lens.

The book opens with news of a demolished childhood home, which leads to an on line journey back into Morris’s own history. She investigates the property’s provenance and recalls her personal experiences as a resident. This sets the tone for many of the following tales. Wherever she stays, even if only for a few days, she wishes to understand the background to her surroundings, and how it came to be whatever it is today.

There are a few journeys abroad: to Paris where the language barrier renders her and her typically voluble partner mute; to Mexico where they get married without understanding a word that is being said; and to Italy where she experiences an earthquake whilst in the company of friends. These stories have been honed in the telling, affecting experiences turned into entertaining tales.

Travels around England are less traumatic but no less engaging. Some of the adventures occur due to a reliance on public transport, others are set later after a car has been acquired. This freedom to travel anywhere, and to stop at will, provides a new set of challenges and ensuing escapades. These are exacerbated when a Satnav takes them on routes best avoided by a not fully confident driver.

Encounters with tour guides, locals and other tourists provide snapshots of stories whose end the reader is left to ponder. The author prefers roads less travelled and observes the surrounding scattered history as she passes through. She recounts incidents that defy explanation, the strangeness of people and their predilections. The cryonicists of East Sussex were particularly weird.

Morris is a successful ghost writer seeking new experiences. One of these occurred when she successfully auditioned as a dancer for a commercial. Although challenging it proved that she could rise above her self imposed limitations. This inspired her to write more under her own name.

The final chapter details the places the author stayed in each of the tales recounted. Given the stories she has told the appeal of these is somewhat dubious. What is clear though is the fun to be had when determined to seek out possibilities. I laughed out loud many times while reading these recollections, and now look forward to enjoying my own next adventure armed with a fresh perspective.

Book Review: On The Bright Side

On The Bright Side, by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans), is the new secret diary from the Dutch octogenarian whose first offering, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, I review here. It is similar in scope so I will not repeat my thoughts – do check out that link for an overview. This sequel is as well written, equally amusing and offers further food for thought. Hendrik’s health continues to deteriorate but he remains sharp enough to provide candid observations on living into old age along with the treatment of the elderly by their peers and those who have not yet experienced the trials of advancing years.

Still living in a state run care home and enjoying his membership of the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik returns to keeping his diary after a year’s break during which he mourned the passing of his beloved Eefje. Grietje has been moved to the dementia wing but the remaining club members, along with two newly elected additions, are still doing their best to indulge in whatever pursuits their failing bodies allow. The diary entries include details of outings to local landmarks, tourist sites and restaurants as well as the day to day issues that must be faced when a body is no longer functioning as it should. Although poignant, the telling is humorous. There is no shying away from incontinence, odours and the restricted speed at which elderly people shuffle or roll from place to place. The delight they take in simple pleasures contrasts with the potential boredom and inertia that builds when nothing is required of them day after day.

A new, national Health Care Law is proving a cause for concern. The rising elderly population is making the cost of their care a hot political issue, with news of cutbacks and closures of affordable homes increasingly prevalent. Mrs Slothouwer, the prickly and evasive manager, is refusing to share whatever plans are being discussed by the care home’s board. The residents have noticed that vacated rooms are not being filled as they once were despite reported waiting lists of many years. In an attempt to find out more, particularly if their home is to be closed or, worse, privatised, the Old But Not Dead Club plan a coup of the Residents Committee.

Given the ages of the inmates, death is a regular occurrence and one that Hendrik ponders and considers planning for. Although suffering maudlin moments he remains determined to make the best of whatever time he has left. His musings on the preoccupations of his fellow residents, their behaviours both deliberate and inadvertent, are considered and direct but largely sympathetic. He has an attitude and demeanour I have rarely experienced amongst elderly people. I wonder if there is an inability to communicate across generations. Hendrik’s views on children belie my own impressions of criticism from his age group. This is, of course, a work of fiction and offers a balance between poignancy and humour.

The writing is tightly woven and entertaining. Most day’s entries are between half a page and a page in length so offer snapshots of varying seriousness. The Old But Not Dead Club are as subversive as is possible given its member’s ages. The help they receive from drivers and others made me wonder how many in reality would ever enjoy such compassion and willing attention.

This is an enjoyable tale as well as a reminder that growing old is a double edged sword. Enlightening, touching, and laugh out loud funny, it is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael Joseph.

Book Review: Glass

Glass, by Alex Christofi, is a gentle, intelligent tale that, in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, could have slipped down the cracks of more typical, cheap humour. It is the story of one young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. The protagonist is propositioned by older women, observes what teenage boys get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, worries about losing his virginity and then his subsequent performance; yet his musings never descend into the bawdy or salacious. They retain a subtlety that enables empathy; canny observations succinctly expressed.

Günter Glass is twenty-three years old when his mother dies, leaving him to cope alone with a brother who he mainly argues with and a father who has turned to drink. Günter has lost his job as a milkman and spends his days studying Wikipedia in an attempt to further his education. It is here that he reads about a businessman who received an OBE for services to the Queen as her appointed window cleaner. He decides that this could be the career for him.

Günter’s grief following his mother’s death takes him to Salisbury Cathedral where he meets Dean Angela Winterbottom, a lady in need of a worker with a head for heights. It is she who is telling Günter’s story, following his death. Alongside the narrative are occasional footnotes which add a further layer of droll quirkiness to the tale.

Günter’s adventures as a window cleaner lead him into a number of regrettable, sometimes dangerous, situations. After being featured in the local newspaper he is offered a job in London where he shares a flat with an eccentric aspiring writer. Their conversations are sometimes bizarre but also piquant. Günter is aware of his lack of social skills and is trying to teach himself to fit in. His interactions make for amusing if somewhat poignant reading.

The story is told with wit and wisdom. Günter is overweight and regarded by many, including his father, as lacking basic intelligence. He may struggle to empathise with those he interacts with but he recognises the contradictions by which they live.

“It was so hard to act in the world without indirectly harming someone else, or contributing to the net misery brought about wherever humanity flourished. One couldn’t buy from fast-food shops, because they were cruel to chickens, exploited their workers and deforested the Amazon to farm cows, which in turn contributed to global warming with their imperfect digestion. One couldn’t buy cheap clothes because they would have been made in a sweatshop, but expensive clothes played into the hands of the fashion world, which peddled insecurity as their stock in trade. Besides, cotton was too often grown and wasted on T-shirts that were never bought, and fair trade only served to elevate a few lucky landowners. And if you were rich enough to be buying everything fair trade, you probably had one of those jobs that creates inequality in the first place.”

Günter mulls the workings of the world as he wades through each day. He may appear fat, foolish and difficult yet his thoughts demonstrate an acute if blinkered awareness. The Dean adds her own nuggets of wisdom.

“There is a story in the bible (Judges 12:6) in which two tribes are at war. In one tribe, people pronounce a word ‘shibboleth’; in the other ‘sibbolet’. They use this to identify the enemy, and to kill them, little realising the real tragedy that this is the sum total of their difference.”

Günter knows that he should eat fewer delicious waffles, a food his mother offered him, and partake in more frequent exercise. He decides to cycle to work and to visit his lady friend, pondering why people choose to go out running when they have nowhere to be. The Dean’s comment on this thought is typically pithy.

“Sisyphus was a (non-Biblical) king who tried to cheat death and was punished by being made to exercise constantly; truly, a modern parable.”

Although entertaining and engaging the joy of reading this tale was the understated depth and intelligent humour in the telling. Günter is a man derided, largely ignored and misunderstood, who does his own share of misunderstanding even those close to him.

The denouement is fitting, despite its poignancy. An impressive debut and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: Ten Dead Comedians

Ten Dead Comedians, by Fred Van Lente, is a contemporary Agatha Christie style murder mystery set on a celebrity owned island in the Caribbean. Hollywood funnyman Dustin Walker invites nine fellow comedians to collaborate with him on an unspecified project, details to be explained during a luxury, weekend retreat. All are excited at this potential injection of energy into their mutable careers and accept. When they arrive it is to discover that they are cut off from the mainland with no access to mobile reception or wifi. Their host then informs them that they are all here to die, including himself.

Lives may be at stake but so are fragile egos. These people have experienced the adrenaline rush of applause, of popular attention, and become addicted. Those who have touched the heady heights of fame may be aware of its disappointments but they still long for its return. They are disdainful of their fellow artistes, especially when compared to themselves.

The deaths begin immediately. At first some believe it is an elaborate hoax, a gig in which they are all being played. As the body count increases and the meagre food supplies get eaten everyone falls under suspicion.

The writing is a satire on the modern performers of comedic repartee where offence and insults pass as humour. Each character found a niche that got them noticed by agents, some even believe themselves to be funny.

The action is offbeat in places, the characters unlikable and at times pitiable, but this is a competent murder mystery. The means of death are imaginative, the reveal of the perpetrator clever even if all is understandably far fetched.

As someone who prefers intelligent humour to the more widespread unsavoury crudeness this garnered an unusual degree of sympathy for modern comedians. I may not have found the transcripts from the standup routines amusing, but the pathos portrayed gave the applause hungry entertainers more humanity than their words suggest they deserve.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: The Ladybird Book of The Meeting

The Ladybird Book of The Meeting, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris, is one in a series of Ladybird books for grown-ups written to help them cope with the world around them. My daughter gave it to my husband on Fathers’ Day and it is the only book he has successfully finished reading this year. This probably says something about shortening attention spans in our modern world, or maybe just about him.

The layout is crisp and appealing with hardback binding and traditional illustrations that will be familiar to those who enjoyed the original Ladybird books as a child. The text is pithy and ironic, amusing to any required to attend workplace meetings. Is anyone in work not required to do this?

As the book says:

Meetings are important because they give everyone a chance to talk about work.

Which is easier than doing it.

I laughed out loud at some of the wry observations and can understand why these little books have become so popular as gifts. Booksellers often stock them close to tills and report buoyant sales which I regard as a good thing. Purchasers may even have picked up another book whilst there.

Although read in about ten minutes this was thereby granted more attention than many gifts presented to my husband over the years.

An amusing diversion that we both enjoyed. I would be happy to have further books from the series adorning my shelves.

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, by a Dutch author whose identity is a closely guarded secret (his words have been translated into English by Hester Velmans), is a must read for anyone who claims they wish to live into old age. It had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions, but this is an honest, poignant and insightful exposé of how it feels to exist in a busy, modern world when one’s body is inexorably deteriorating.

Hendrik Groen doesn’t like old people, particularly their endless complaints and repetitive, small minded conversation. He lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, one provided by the state at minimal cost. He admits that it is not a bad place to be, that the food is passable and he has made some good friends. Many of his fellow residents, however, he derides. Due to his habit of wishing to please everyone he cannot bring himself to say what he thinks, so he decides to write it down, narrating a year in the life of the inmates.

Given that this home is the sort of facility where people go to die, death is a regular occurence. Each time a room is vacated it must quickly be cleared that a new resident may move in. When one such arrival, Eefje, turns out to have a sharper wit than most, Hendrik befriends her. He and his select band of peers have an epiphany – if life is to be improved then they must take action. To the palpable disapproval of management, they set up the Old But Not Dead Club. Outings are arranged and fun is had. Once more, they have something to look forward to, including a chance to fall in love.

Each entry in the diary presents aspects of life from the point of view of an elderly gentleman who fully recognises his incapacities yet rails against the way the growing number of old people are treated by society. He also rails against how so many of these old people talk and behave towards each other. He acknowledges the smells and the leaks and the slowness of their actions; he dislikes these unavoidable features of aging as much as anyone. What he struggles with is the narrowing of horizons, the constant discussion of ailments, the petty bullying and intransigence endemic in their everyday lives.

Alongside the routine are moments that prove Hendrik can still garner enjoyment from life. Their club outings enable the members to try new activities, to eat well and drink with abandon. Such behaviour earns them the rancour of their envious peers.

There are also the trials, when good friends suffer serious health setbacks. There is discussion of euthanasia, dementia and suicide.

The wide ranging scope of the book makes it, in my view, an essential read. It does not shy away from the issues of aging, but neither does it present it as without hope. I loved the fun Hendrik had on a mobility scooter, the way the members of the club behaved on their outings, and the subversive nature of their gatherings within the care home where they flouted the rules designed to make life boringly safe, or  simply easier for the carers.

Hendrik is incorrigible, sometimes grumpy, always relatable. His honesty is both poignant and refreshing. He asks that he may be granted a place in the world, not shunted aside as the embarrassment too many view him as.

It is pointed out that the number of old people is set to grow yet economies in provision for them are forever being sought. Hendrik does not expect to live long enough to suffer the consequences. He offers a reminder to the policymakers that they are ruling on the quality of their own future lives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Think Jam.