Archive | September, 2010

How to Alienate Readers, Too

26 Sep
Book cover for How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young

Toby Young: What a cock

Book Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

I bought this book because the title caught my eye, and the quotes on the cover were divine:
“I’ll rot in hell before I give that little bastard a quote for his book” – Julie Birchill

However, having read this all the way through – I agree with the various nay-sayers on the cover, and would like to hit Toby Young about the head with a hardcover copy of this memoir.

It would be safe to say Mr. Young doesn’t really get it. When writing yourself as the cute, laddish fool – firstly you have to actually be likeable, and secondly for fuck’s sake never make the kind of zany little blunders that may – for example – risk your girlfriend getting raped. Yes, you read that right.

Toby Young presents all his brazen idiocies as lovable mistakes. Perhaps to him they are. To me, and I suspect most other readers, you need to warm to the protagonist a whole lot more before you let him get away with half the shit that Young does. And does repeatedly.

You know that obnoxious, arrogant, knuckle-dragging friend-of-a-friend you probably have to deal with down the pub every now and again? Well one of them’s managed a media career, and thanks to this book you can now read the world from his point of view. It doesn’t make much more sense than it did down the pub, but at least this one hollers less, and you can put it aside whenever he becomes to much.

Don’t get me wrong, it was educational, too: I now know to not turn up to my first day of work wearing a t-shirt that says “Young, Hung and Full of Cum.”

The frustrating thing is that there is an intellect fighting to get out. Some of his analysis of transatlantic differences are interesting and valid, as well as his analysis of the illusion of meritocracy – it’s just that these glimpses are so severely overshadowed by all his antics/arrogance/all-round arsery that this book, as a whole, is best left alone.

God knows how they managed to turn this into a romantic comedy with that nice Simon Pegg in it. I suspect it involved some industrial cleaning to remove all traces of Toby Young’s noxious personality.

Originally appeared on Goodreads


Into Temptation

26 Sep

This review originally appeared on Fat Quarter on 25 November 2009.

Into Temptation - Poetry by Sophia Blackwell

Into Temptation – Poetry by Sophia Blackwell

Into Temptation: Poetry by Sophia Blackwell

Every one of these words rings true and glows like burning coal

“Gay Rage was my teenage agenda,
my mates talking race, class and gender.
We’d get in frantic states
and semantic debates
when some poof called some gaylord a bender.”

This is my current favourite excerpt from Into Temptation, a collection of 27 poems by open-mic regular Sophia Blackwell. Described in her own words as a “performance poet, cabaret vamp, burlesque wannabe, feminist lesbian warrior princess and Italian pasta-momma” – all I can add is to say if they taught poets like this in schools, I’d never have to cringe when that conversation comes along and I admit that what I like to write ‘actually, kind of includes, um…’ (gulp) ‘…poetry.’

Treading a brilliant line between the tender and the gutsy, Into Temptation is split into three sections: Mad Love, No Angels and Ordinary Joys. It has a wealth of experience in life and love, a devil-may-care attitude which glows through the collection, and an anger directed in all the right places. I’d challenge anyone to not fall a little bit in love with this book.

Sophia Blackwell is an accomplished performer, and having seen her live a few times I occasionally wasn’t sure if I was enjoying the words on the page so much as the live delivery I could imagine as I read them – but either way the influence of having honed these in front of live audiences is apparent: these poems are tried, tested and the rhymes and flows are polished to a sheen. In ‘Wilderness Years’ the sheer verbal feats, let alone what they express, are thrilling:

“I like when this world in its hugeness astounds me,
amuses me, bruises me, screws and confounds me.
I smile as its brutal great beauty surrounds me
I’m free in these wilderness years.”

In the few poems which didn’t make me grin from ear to ear, the sheer skill involved was breathtaking, such in ‘Paris in the Spring’ which with tells one story one way, but then repeats with the order of the lines reversed, telling a completely different story. Pieces such as ‘Wilderness Years’ or ‘Red Dress Blues’ have an almost anthemic feel about them – a neat summation and celebration of life for the generation of women that has no intention of waiting until they are old to start wearing purple. Or red:

“I don’t give a damn what the preacher said,
I’m reeling from a night in a stranger’s bed,
that face above me like a figurehead.
My dress has to be red.”

Singing out from this collection is an epic personality. The type whose quips should be immortalised in amongst the quotes from Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Mae West. Calling all smart bookish girls aged seventeen or under: throw away your Frieda Kahlo postcards and your dreary Sylvia Plath: I’ve found someone better. All those of drinking age – catch her at a poetry night sometime soon.

Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader

26 Sep
Innocent when you dream: the Tom Waits Reader

Book cover for \’Innocent when you dream: the Tom Waits Reader\’

Book Review: Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader

Musical one-off and self-styled blues hobo shoots the breeze

Chances are if you’re willing to pick up and read this book, you already love Tom Waits and want to learn more about the man who evokes a subterranean bohemia with songs such as ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (not me)’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.’ However, given that Waits has compared speaking to the press as ‘a bit like talking to a cop’ – it’s perhaps no great surprise that the autobiographical details are a little thin on the ground.

This book features pieces from CREEM, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, NME, Playboy, GQ, and The Onion to name but a few. The collection does two parallel things: on the one hand it charts the career of a pretty amazing musician, on the other hand – it sells the idea of Tom Waits – a slice of Americanski which the diner waitress probably dropped on the floor but still served up anyway.

Most of the articles begin with the palpable glee of the journalist rubbing their eager little hands together, trying to work out where to start describing this man. One writer in this collection described trying to keep up with Waits in conversation as like trying to go for a walk with someone who happens to be evading assassins. Most of the pieces end with the audience only a fraction wiser about what actually makes the man tick, but readers will have some pretty unlikely images, interesting facts and brilliant witticisms wandering around in their minds instead. “People who can’t cope with drugs turn to reality,” “Fire is just the sun unwinding itself from the wood,” “She’s a diamond in the rough that wants to stay coal,” – to name but three which have stuck with me.

By the end of this book, having read various interviews spanning thirty years – the only thing you have to go on to work out if any given story is true or not is the frequency with which Waits tells the story. Was he born in a taxicab? Has he met the Marlboro Man’s mother? Does he actually know all the regulars of the latest dive bar he’s invited the interviewer to? It’s impossible to tell what’s invented and what’s real, but what you miss in concrete fact is amply made up for in Waits’ enthusiasm, wit and oddball take on the world. Describing the world as he sees it: scenes of smokey bars, petty crooks, ‘warm beer and cold women.’

Waits is by turns tragic, dazzling, hilarious and often oddly tender – the beatnik spirit of Burroughs and Kerouac reborn, and still snarling at suburbia. The writers gathered for this collection are pretty damn good too – and there’s a very interesting key change when the interviewer is someone like Jim Jarmusch who Waits has frequently worked with.

The only downside I’d say to this book is that my attention seriously started to flag about two thirds in. It’s a lot of interviews going over the same territory – and even with a Class-A Bullshitter like Waits to navigate around the journalists’ questions – it’s inevitably going to drag at some point.

What Waits lets journalists in on is more of a character concept, and he does his best to keep him away from all nameable homelife facts such as anything about his wife, kids, where he lives – or even where he’s been in the seven year gap since his last album (“traffic school.”) That said, his character concept of the mad old blues hobo is pretty incredible, and well worth reading about.

Some absolute Beat beauts (if a little repetitive.) Welcome to his world. It won’t take you anywhere in particular, but it’s worth the ride.

Originally appeared on