Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

A year in books – 2014 – John Maguire

Since I purchased myself a Reading Chair, my reading habits have become far more structured this year. It’s true I still read haphazardly in between appointments and on my daily commute on the buses of Liverpool. It takes 21 days for a new habit to be formed and now if I do not snatch a few moments in my chair daily, I feel like the day has not really been complete.

stack-of-booksI started the year with Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, a first-hand observation of New York during the Bohemian seventies. It details her relationship with the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The poetry behind her descriptions of the creative process is intense, dark and beautiful.

BREAKFAST WITH LUCIEN by Geordie Grieg tries to get behind the skin of the cantankerous painter Lucien Freud. This book does not shed the artist in a great light. I would hate for a friend who I chose to have breakfast with regularly to narrate all the things we intimately discussed (allegedly) after I died. As Freud was an enigmatic private man I find this well, quite frankly, quite rude. The book was an addictive read and proof that you can appreciate the artist even if his or her life choices are somewhat questionable and contradictory to your own moral compass.

THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES by Roald Dahl were delicious, macabre, tales of the everyday with a sadistic twist, a tapas board of terror. I wanted to re-read THE GREAT GATSBY before seeing the new-fangled 4D bluescreen adaptation.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I would say that this is the greatest book of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, perhaps second only to TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Sadly, it left me questioning how he would have developed if he had not drowned himself in hard liquor. How many great writers have been lost on the wild seas of intoxication?

I abandoned THIS SIDE OF PARADISE as I felt it was like being in a room with a married couple when they drank too much and argued at a party. LAST DAYS by Adam Neville is an enjoyable horror focusing on a lost cult from the seventies. I could not help drawing parallels with Scientology.

Back to the classics next with the episodic story of self-development DAVID COPPERFIELD and then onto NICHOLAS NICKELBY both by Charles Dickens, I think I found my favourite Dickensian character too (so far) in the eccentric Mr Dick. I struggled through BLEAK HOUSE, a great tale but I found the legal wranglings tedious.

THE APPRENTICE by Tess Gerritsen was a grizzly and graphic suspenseful horror. Nothing quite like feeling like you are actually attending an autopsy when reading whilst on the bus to work at 6:45am. Surgically accurate fiction, you feel every cut. (Pardon the ridiculous pun!)

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walters will make you yearn to visit the slow country, Italy. A gorgeous tale of romance that reminded me of the great Sixties films by Fellini or the recent The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino.

KEEPING THE DEAD by Tess Gerritsen took me back to the morgue. A guide on how to mummify a dead body is always a good thing to have in your mind’s library. Perhaps though, something to omit from a CV or job application? A masterclass in pulp horror. With & SONS by David Gilbert, you can taste the atmosphere of New York City. The narrative focuses on a writer and his complex relationships with his siblings. DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli was camp farcical fun James Bond meets a sexed up Jeeves and Wooster.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King is the sequel to one of his masterpieces, THE SHINING, and is equally as horrific. Wow, I am now grateful for having read some of King’s weaker books as this illustrates the man’s sheer genius. When asked in an interview where he gets his ideas from he said,

I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a drawer in my desk.

REVENGE by Martina Cole is a recipe for gangster revenge tragedy. Take a dose of Danny Dyer, add a few WAG-like women, a sprinkling of Ray Winstone and a few reated metaphors, like he was ‘strung up like a kipper’. An entertaining spectacle of a book. MAGGIE AND ME by Damian Barr, is a coming of age tale about a gay guy growing up when it was not deemed acceptable to be gay, running parallel with the political changes during the Thatcher years. JUBILEE by Shelley Harris took me to the hot summer of 1977, one street in Blighty and all the little hidden tales behind the closed doors of its residents.

THIS BODY OF DEATH by Elizabeth George was an epic crime thriller that cleverly entwined several plots into a climatic conclusion. It left me trying to solve its mystery right up until the explosive conclusion.

goldfinchTHE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt was my book of the year. My only regret is I will never have the experience of reading this book for the first time again. With stunning sentence structure and imagery throughout I encourage all to indulge in this literary treat.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh, a titillating tale of a Mum’s sexual obsession with her daughter’s boyfriend, had some luscious descriptions of the Mediterranean landscape. Like a holiday one night stand, it was fun at the time, enjoyable but didn’t develop into anything more substantial.

DECEPTION by Philip Roth is an experimental stream of conscious, dialogue between a writer and his mistress through the years of their affair. This then began an addiction to the writer’s work. THE BREAST followed a Kafkaesque story of a man who literally turns into a giant breast. Anyone who thinks of Roth as a misogynist needs to read this story. It brings us face-to-face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity. The narrator of this fable is David Kapesh and I followed his future adventures in THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE and then THE DYING ANIMAL. This piece sees Kapesh as a 60-year-old lecturer and cultural critic begin an affair with a 24-year-old student. An exploration of the human condition, the strange facets that make up an individual and the paradoxical emotions of love and desire.

I moved on to Roth’s other collection with narrator Nathan Zuckerman. THE GHOSTWRITER details the young writer meeting his literary hero E.I Lonoff. Again Roth takes the reader through this characters life story with ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND and THE ANATOMY LESSON, a tempestuous ride through relationships, fame and addiction. The thinner volume THE PRAGUE ORGY takes the reader along with Zuckerman’s adventures in Soviet Russia, a scabrous and gutsy observation of this country.

Okay, I made a Philip Roth patch to wear to wean me off this literary obsession and picked up A LIFE STRIPPED BARE by Leo Hickman, a non-fiction book which chronicles an experiment in how to live a more sustainable existence in our throwaway fast society. NOW AND YESTERDAY by Stephen Greco was an interesting story about a gay designer in his sixties looking for love in Eighties New York. The descriptions of his lifestyle and the interiors of New York were fabulous and decadent.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF TALENT by Daniel Coyle, short sharp tips on how to improve performance in your chosen field has equipped me with a few points on self-improvement. I slipped off the PHILIP ROTH wagon, as I wanted to read a book about the complex Israel-Palestine conflict. The COUNTERLIFE was a challenging and thought-provoking investigation into this chaotic mess.

SISTER MAYBE by Ann Tyler was recommended by my dear friend and fountain of wisdom Rita Tannett. As this lady has previously recommended the amazing BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin and many others in the past, this was priority. What a piece of writing – each chapter crafted to have maximum emotional impact. A tale of an American family and the undercurrent of troubles behind their perfect family set up.  It reminded me of the Roxy Music lyric,

in every dream home a heartache.

Prior to seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, I read Viktor Bokris’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL. Bokris has written fantastic works on Blondie and Lou Reed. He is not frightened to ‘tell it how it is’ and focuses on Warhol’s love of art in the early years and his metamorphosis into a complex, cold, master puppeteer. I found this one of the most disturbing books to read, as for so many people that he came into contact with, although messed up to say the least, he seemed to add to their troubles. Not really one of those friends who you can describe as a life enhancer.

I re-visited one of my favourite poets William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. A volume of work that like a classic Kate Bush album needs to be digested in one sitting.

oh the places you'll goThe great thing about buying Xmas gifts for my nieces and nephews is I get to read the books before I give them away. THE LORAX and OH THE PLACES YOU WILL GO by Dr Seuss are like little nuggets of philosophy.

So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.

Tove Jansen’s MOOMIN BOOK OF WORDS is like a kindergarten class taught by Salvador Dali. THE CHARIOTEER by Mary Renault, an of its time novel about the love that dare not speak its name during the war. It was an articulate brave, novel that plays an important part in LGBT history. On Xmas Day I read possibly one of the best gifts I have ever received, a Ladybird classic, CHARLES DICKENS, a thirty page book that neatly sums up the master craftsman’s career.

Final book of the year was Michael Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS. He is the author of one of my favourite novels, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. What I love about this writer is the way he can adapt to different genres, from Victorian prostitution to sci-fi with his excellent UNDER THE SKIN. Incidentally, the adaptation of Under the Skin was my film of the year. Seeing Scarlett Johansen’s alien drift through the street of modern Glasgow past Clare’s Accessories and later try to understand Tommy Cooper on the television was surreal.

His latest work is a re-visit to the sci-fi genre, a novel about a religious preacher travelling into deep space to bring God and the light to an alien tribe. A graphic exploration of the importance of faith and what we mean by the word, ‘home’.

farage HITLERI may send it directly to Bigot – sorry I mean Briton – of the Year. Nigel Farage.

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Tales of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl

As the autumn nights drain the colour from the day, I find that dipping into Roald Dahl’s short stories makes for a suspenseful evening read. Dark, disturbing, direct, Dahl’s tales take the reader into everyday normal scenarios, a familiar world of daily occurrences, tea, nicely turned-down beds, cosy fireplaces, friendly policemen and then he twists up the macabre volume to full. The everyday becomes the horrific, fear filled flights of fancy.

His writing reminds me of the great Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Take the infamous shower scene; you never actually see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin. It’s all in the clever editing, the final cut (pardon the pun). This is precisely what Dahl does with his short stories; it’s what is not said that is most disturbing. It leaves the reader to fill in the cognitive gaps.

tales of the unexpected

I remember being disturbed by the beginning of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected when I was a boy. The title sequence consisted of silhouettes of dancing-girls with a backdrop of flames, followed by Dahl’s personal welcome. The tall, skeletal man perched in his armchair, his gaze piercing and speaking like a quintessential English Aristocrat.

dahl skeleton

He reminds me of my friend Hogarth, who I have in my study. Frida Kahlo used to have a full skeleton above her bed, to remind her of the fact that we never know when we are going to die, so must live for the moment. I liked this idea. For there is a danger that with all the pre-disposition with technology, worries about work, politics and balancing lives on an ever-increasing treadmill, we can actually forget to look around at what we have, take stock, appreciate and enjoy. After all, tomorrow is a long way off.

But please note, I do not wish to offend the respected author in any way, I am describing him through the eyes of a child. In fact, given some of his descriptions of adults in his works, I think he would find it rather complimentary.

I recently viewed the television series again as a 36-year old man; with a little bit more experience of this insane place we call earth. My particular favourite is A Lamb to the Slaughter, involving infidelity, murder and a frozen leg of lamb. Oh, and Brian Blessed, roaring the role of an investigative policeman. I am not going to announce ‘spoiler alert’ or even tell you what happens, I would instead encourage you to have a look at this episode and read the tale, you will not be disappointed!

Dahl is still making the headlines as a figure of controversy even now after his death; with the recent re-publication of his iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, re-issued with a cover specifically for adults.

roald-dahl-charlie-chocolate-factory-2014

I’d say that if an adult feels that to be seen reading a tale that happens to have been written for children as a problem, they need to have a word with themselves and grow up. Besides with the amount of trees that are sacrificed to publish some of the mindless tripe these days, Fifty Shades of Clever Marketing for example, you are best grappling with great works, children’s lit and all.

It disturbs me how Waterstones has to label whole tables of books, chick lit, potential cult classics etc. Let people decide themselves! You might even stumble accidentally upon something you like. That is how I found Iris Murdoch, who in my head I’d thought was like Catherine Cookson, how wrong was I? It is fortunate that there are contemporary writers like Donna Tartt, releasing books only when she sees fit that they are ready, not to a marketing schedule.

the gold finch

A literary Kate Bush! When you read a tome like The Goldfinch, how you are reminded that sometimes things are worth waiting for, particularly when they are richly textured and poignant as this piece of literary genius is. Sentences that need to be savoured and a plot that engulfs. One lady of Liverpool letters Madam Le Smith, summed the book up in three words, “What a ride!”

And I can guarantee that Dahl’s short stories will also provide a ride, a tempestuous ride into the dark recesses of your soul.

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Old stories, old music

From a friend who told me she had started to re-read the Brothers Grimm to tell the stories to her young son, discovering unremembered darkness within the familiar tales,  to one of the last books I read before I left the UK for Japan: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, in which books whisper in the night while the wolves and worse-than-wolves howl.

From the stories I want to finish writing down to all the ones I tell out loud again and again, honing them as if they were the blade of a sword wielded by a handsome prince, in a tale told by everyone’s favourite cinematic Grandpa, now sadly no longer with us…

Stories are on my mind a lot at the moment.

Here is a secret that you probably already know: the stories you tell and the stories you hear are nothing less than tuning forks that you strike again and again. Your innermost being hears the notes and responds, not to the story, but to the music that carries it… This is the secret – the music underneath the story is what carries the magic.

– Tom Hirons, storyteller

Then I hear that today is Dahl Day, the birthday of one of the great music makers of storytelling, whose tales sang through my childhood and still ring deep in my heart today.  There are many, many, of Roald Dahl’s books I could pick as my favourite, Matilda, the BFG or the autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo.  Instead, I think I will choose Danny the Champion of the World, with its gypsy caravans and poachers in the woods, Danny and his Dad cocking a snook at the landed gentry and their gamekeepers.  What better way to celebrate than to curl up with your own favourite.  Happy Dahl Day!

The Princess Bride picture kindly borrowed from here

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