Tuesday, March 31, 2009


For a book written in a fairly flat, emotionless voice the story in Ascent is incredibly moving and intensely rendered. The character's motives and feelings are rarely mentioned, but it is remarkable how vivid the narrative is and how immersed the reader becomes.

A fictional account of a Soviet fighter pilot who forges a legendary reputation in the Korean War only to lose it all in the dying days of the war. His previous prestige saves him from the Siberian labour camps, but he is exiled to a remote base in the Arctic circle for ten years. One more legendary exploit rescues him from this obscurity and secures his ultimate ambition – a spot on the team for the Soviet space program.

Since finishing the book a few weeks ago I keep finding myself returning to its themes and images; the ending still haunts me and will stay lodged in my brain for a long long time.

Bad Blood

As you can probably guess, Bad Blood is mostly about drugs. Jeremy Whittle was one of the launch editors of procycling in 1999 and he has written about professional cycling for over 10 years, so it is safe to say that he knows what he is talking about on this topic.

He recounts his journey from enthusiastic, but innocent fan who becomes seduced by the Tour and cycling – spending hours watching highlights of the 1986 Tour late at night and cycling his bike through London streets in the early hours – to a jaded, exasperated insider who has fallen out of love with the sport.

It is a brilliant and fascinating read. Whittle has obviously invested far more of his life and thought longer and harder about the problems plaguing professional cycling than I have, but the arc of his relationship with the sport will be familiar to anybody who has followed cycling over the last ten to twenty years.

It isn't a particularly long book and he doesn't go into depth presenting or reporting the evidence of widespread drug use in the peleton. Most of the facts will be well-known to readers but his writing has great emotion and the powerfulness of the writing comes from the way these news stories collide and impact with this one man's life.

The other insider accounts (Paul Kimmage's Rough Ride and Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain spring to mind) I have read tend to be self-serving and resentful and since they are written by ex-riders and support staff tend to be more about settling scores and justifying the protagonists behaviour.

Because Jeremy is one step removed from the actual racing he is more clear-sighted about what is going on and the effects it has on the sport that he loves. Early on in the book he sets out what he hopes to achieve:
... I believe that sport has as much of a role to play in the fabric of our lives as politics or art, and what interests me is not a litany of naming and shaming but the effect of a tacit acceptance of institutionalised doping, both on professional athletes and on their fans.
This he does, but again it is the personal effect on Jeremy himself as a fan and a member of the cycling fraternity that most powerfully illuminates the damage that doping has inflicted on cycling.
There was not any single moment when I realised that a sport – an obsession – that had helped me to come to terms with my own dark places and to rebuild my life had in fact become a prison of its own. Instead, my faith in those working within cycling died slowly – the 'death of a thousand cuts' – as scandal followed scandal, until there was no residue of faith left.
Looking back it took a very long time for me to become faithless ... Yet eventually the sport's inability to achieve change angered me. At the same time, I realised how polluted my own life had been by the melancholy and defeatism of doping. Acknowledging the extent of that contamination was a liberation of sorts.

The essence of doping is cheating and the essence of cheating is defeatism. Doping says, 'this can't be done any other way; this can't be achieved through hard work or talent, through intelligence, determination and honesty'. All that's left is to lie and cheat and make others complicit to that cheating.

And living and working in an environment where those values are the currency of everyday relationships, kills you a little. It colours your belief and taints your faith in human nature.
I will always love the Tour and, because of those magical summer days when as a teenager I followed the exploits of Robert Millar, Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon on Channel 4 in the late 1980s, those three weeks in July will always be special. However, over the last few years I have begun to care less and less who actually wins. I am sure I will always have an opinion about who is going to win and will always follow the sport to a certain degree, but as with Jeremy the dreams and enchantment that I once had are long gone and sadly I think that is true for many other fans.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Vampires, teenage sex and reading

Watch the hits go through the roof ... and the 100% exit stats!

Interesting column by Jane Sullivan in The Age a few weeks back ostensibly about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, but what caught my eye was the following quote taken from a longer piece by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about adolescent girls:
She is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs – to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others – are met precisely by the act of reading.
I think this is a fantastic description of the importance of reading on the inner, secret emotional life of those inhabitants of the tricky interzone between child- and adulthood. I would disagree that this need is exclusively felt by female adolescents, but it is probably only teenage girls who would be able to meet these needs by stories about schoolgirls and a handsome envoy of the undead ...

Of course it is all a metaphor and a warning about the dangers of teenage sex or as the original article puts it – 'no writer, from Bram Stoker on, has captured so precisely what sex and longing really mean to a young girl'. Unless, of course, you discount Joss Whedon! But of course he was writing for TV and that doesn't count.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Will There Be Good News?

'A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.' So says Jackson Brodie, as if in anticipation of some of the reviews of Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?

There are a lot of coincidences, but nothing that wouldn't seem out of place in any newspaper crime story. As the old cliché goes truth is always stranger than fiction ...

And anyway the writing is so fine that you don't really care if Jackson's martian cousins had landed in Ms MacDonald's garden in Musselburgh instead of the runaway GNER intercity express of the novel.

For me the first Jackson novel was just a little bit twee and the happy ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly. Atkinson seemed a little unsure of her departure from the cosy world of literary fiction and it took a while for her to find her feet with the crime elements of the story. The second one was more believable and the writing was tighter.

This time everything comes together beautifully – the writing is taught and noir-ish, the multiple narrator perspective works brilliantly, giving different viewpoints and pushing the narrative onwards, and the different layers of the story reveal themselves spectacularly.

The ending seems to suggest that there may be a few more adventures for Jackson still to come, but if not I am sure that Reggie could step in and take over the franchise.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Books of 2008

Complete list is in the sidebar on the right (scroll down a bit) and can only be described as a very poor effort, with a total of only 26 books (one a fortnight). Not helped by only reading 16 pages of Kafka on the Shore between December 1 and December 31 ...

Top 10
1 In Another Light – Andrew Greig
2 The Testament of Gideon Mack – James Robertson
3 Sputnik Caledonia – Andrew Crumey
4 Miracles of Life – JG Ballard
5 Slicing the Silence – Tom Griffiths
6 Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
7 Midnight in Sicily – Peter Robb
8 Wildwood – Roger Deakin
9 The Wild Places – Robert MacFarlane
10 One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson

Fiction: 15 titles
Non-fiction: 11 titles
Number of authors: 26
Male authors: 21
Female authors: 5
Books published in 2008: 5
Books published in 2007: 8
Books published in 2006: 5
Books published in 2005: 5
Books published 2000-04: 2
Books published 1990-99: 0
Books published 1980-89: 1
Books published before 1980: 0

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Song for Sunday

Emiliana Torrini – Big Jumps

Dedicated to to my friends Norman and Neil (and, of course, their respective partners – Shona and Julie) who have both announced recently that they are getting married!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Book of Other People

I know its for charity, but the problem is it just isn't very good. I had high hopes, admittedly. A handsomely designed hardback with twenty-three short pieces on the theme of character, containing work by some of my favourite novelists – David Mitchell, Hari Kunzru, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and Colm Tóibín – and a supporting cast of other interesting writers that I had either enjoyed before or wanted to know more about – A. L. Kennedy, ZZ Packer, Andrew O'Hagan, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Toby Litt and A.M. Homes. What could go wrong ...

David Mitchell's Judith Castle was the first big disappointment. I haven't read anything by David before that was less than brilliant, but this is pretty shallow and tedious with a punchline that you can see coming from less than half-way through.

Rhoda, Jonathan Safran Foer's Jewish granny stream-of-consciousness, has its moments, but is a long way from the best of his writing. Andrew O'Hagan's Gordon (yes, that Gordon) is a great idea, which doesn't quite come off, while Dave Eggers' Theo is a throwaway idea stretched and meandering way beyond the point where it was interesting.

The two best stories for me were Colm Tóibín's affecting Donal Webster and A. L. Kennedy's genuinely unsettling Frank. Both create vivid and believable individuals who find themselves in situations that you desperately want to know more about.

Anyway it is for a good cause – www.826national.org (unbelievably they even get the website wrong in the introduction) – and I hope the book raises them lots of cash. However, if you want to read something captivating and amusing I would suggest you try the letters to President Obama written by some of the students supported by this organisation instead.

Monday, March 2, 2009

American Journeys

On the United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion.

... thinking that it was in the 'nature' of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appears. The Freedom Marchers had been Americans. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelman was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America - the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal - were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. That paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.
Although Don Watson is talking about Vietnam and a different generation of Americans, I know exactly what he means. My heroes would be Jack Kerouac, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Bob Mould; the Prince of Darkness would be Ronald Reagan. Even so it is uncanny how well he articulates the schizophrenic relationship most of the inhabitants of the rest of the world has with America.

The introduction to Don's American Journey contains some of the best writing you will find about the USA. The account of his travels is fascinating and entertaining, but doesn't quite match up to the power, clarity and simplicity of his initial thoughts.

It starts well, with a visit to New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrinia, where he seems equally bemused by the inept government response and by the religious volunteers who stepped in to fill the void. The journey loses a bit of focus after that and, although he is an interesting travel companion, what he encounters isn't always that interesting. The historical detail is excellent, there are some wonderful asides and he does visit some fascinating places that don't often figure in travel itineraries, but if I was feeling uncharitable I would say it often felt more like a publisher's advance in search of an odyssey rather than the other way round.

But don't let that put you off. It is still a great read, even it doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first thirteen pages. And Watson is particularly good on America's mind-boggling contradictions, its immense diversity and intricate social structures. He also captures the spirit of the populace's optimism and potential, as he says: 'one also sees startling unselfconscious acts of grace and generosity that might only be possible when something childlike and raw remains in the spirit of the place'.

Sunday, March 1, 2009