Last week, I gave myself the very enjoyable task of re-reading the books on my Ten Favourite Books list and reviewing them on the Multiverse. The first on the list was Spider by Patrick McGrath, first published in 1990 and first read by me in 1998. It’s a bit of a difficult one to review without giving the plot away but here goes…

Spider is set in London in the late 1950s and its narrator is Dennis Cleg, otherwise known as Spider due to his tall gangly frame. It is apparent from the opening pages that Dennis is not quite right, off somehow: ‘Nothing is automatic with me anymore…The simplest actions – eating, dressing, going to the lavatory – can sometimes pose insurmountable problems…the linkage of brain and limb is a delicate mechanism and often, now, for me, it becomes uncoupled.’

Dennis lives in a boarding-house in East London near where he grew up, having returned from a long period away. Being in such close proximity to his childhood home is arousing memories, dark hints of trauma and tragedy, and so he has decided to keep a diary to make sense of his thoughts. However Dennis’s mind is obsessive, chaotic and constantly anxious; he loathes his landlady and refers to the other lodgers as ‘dead souls’, he hears voices in the attic at night, and he is plagued by illness, feeling that his intestines are twisting around his spine. There is a gathering sense of foreboding as the book progresses and Dennis comes apart as he confronts the horrors of his childhood.

Spider is an atmospheric and beautifully written book. McGrath describes the pea-souper fogs rolling in over the Thames, the narrow dark alleyways of the East End, the unending rain and grey gloom, in vivid intricate detail. In fact his writing – the way in which he constructs sentences, his use of language, the way in which he simultaneously hints and conceals –  is what made this one of my favourite books. Even re-reading it, I went over certain paragraphs or phrases a number of times, lost in admiration of his talent.

Early on in his career, McGrath was labelled a “gothic” writer and certainly Spider has gothic overtones, but it’s also a brilliant study of a man’s mind unravelling. McGrath’s father was the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital and the family lived on the grounds. This odd childhood obviously affected McGrath as many of his books deal with mental illness, deformity (whether mental or physical), and isolation. Or as he puts it, ‘what I like to do is to observe the breakdown of people whose emotions cannot be assimilated into the realities they occupy.’ 

This was my first introduction to Patrick McGrath’s work and on scanning my bookshelves I see I now have nine of his books. Start with Spider and if you like it, I’d also recommend Martha Peake and Asylum.

Recently on Facebook, people have been listing their ten favourite books and tagging others to do the same. I have no idea who started the whole project, but I’m assuming it was a writer who was procrastinating.

I was tagged a couple of days ago and listed mine. I didn’t want to spend too long thinking about it because that’s the sort of thing that could end up in insomnia and paralysing indecision, so I listed the first five books that came immediately to mind and then quickly scanned my bookshelves to fill in the rest. I also listed them in no particular order because if I tried to rank them against each other my brain would explode.  

  • Spider – Patrick McGrath
  • Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
  • Girlfriend in a Coma – Douglas Coupland
  • Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
  • The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster
  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  • If This Is A Man – Primo Levi
  • Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  • Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates

As a result of this exercise, I’ve decided to re-read these ten books and review them on the Multiverse in the next ten weeks. I’ve started with Spider by Patrick McGrath, a book that I first read in 1998. (How can I be so specific? I sign and date all of my books when I buy them because I am a huge nerd).

Anyway, now you guys know what’s in store for Mondays over the next while. I hope you end up reading one or some or all of the ten; I think they’re all exceptional in their own way.

FKA twigs (FKA standing for ‘Formerly Known As’) released her debut studio album, LP1, this month. The album’s lead single ‘Two Weeks’ has been getting steady play in my gaff and I’m in love with it. The electro-r&b vibe combined with her ethereal voice lends a kind of Massive Attack feel to the track, and the lyrics (which you can read here) are sexy as hell and lot more interesting than your standard pop fare.

Tahliah Debrett Barnett is from the UK and she’s twenty-six years old. Known as Twigs because of the way her joints snap and crack, she had to add the ‘FKA’ when another artist called Twigs requested she change her name. She’s been lauded by the UK music industry since her debut EP in 2012 and she embarks on her first international tour in October. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like her tour hits Ireland at any point, but whenever she does eventually play here I’ll be in the audience!

 

 

In case you didn’t hear about it, Multiverse favourite David Mitchell showed writers on Twitter a great way to use the platform. Last month he tweeted his latest short story, The Right Sort, in 280 tweets over the course of a week. The Guardian has helpfully put them in chronological order and you can read the full story here. The story is about a young boy, Nathan, and his mother and a Valium fuelled afternoon. Mitchell uses the 140 character limit to great effect, as seen here: ‘The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one.’

Many writers think that being on Twitter doesn’t sell books and therefore it’s not worth engaging with, but I disagree. Too often writers use Twitter solely as a means to self-promote, perhaps not realising that what social media users want is content, not forty-five posts about their latest book. Mitchell’s new book The Bone Clocks is published on 2nd September and of course, this Twitter story is a great way of drawing attention to his work in time for the publication, but it’s also a valid exercise in itself and a brilliant idea.

Everyone knows the Sonny and Cher version of ‘The Beat Goes On’ written by Sonny Bono. I have an updated lounge version of the track by The All Seeing I, featuring a vocalist that I didn’t know and I sometimes play it at gigs. I bought a new Buddy Rich album recently (for more information on my obsession with Buddy Rich click here) and saw there was a version of ‘The Beat Goes On’. I listened to it and found out who the unknown singer is; it’s Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter.

What’s remarkable is that Cathy Rich was only twelve years old when this was recorded in 1967. She obviously inherited some of her dad’s considerable musical talent! This video isn’t the best quality but when the camera focusses on a close-up of her you can see how young she was.

The Stag came out in 2013 but completely passed me by. A mate of mine recommended it to me last week saying it was one of the funniest films she’d seen in a while and, having done three gigs in a row last weekend, on Sunday I flaked out and watched it. And yes, it’s funny. In fact very funny in parts.

The film is about the stag weekend of Fionan (Hugh O’Conor) who is getting married to Ruth (Amy Huberman). Ruth asks Fionan’s best mate Davin (Andrew Scott) to organise a weekend away, but Fionan is reluctant to go the usual “booze and strippers” route, being a fairly meek and mild individual. Instead Davin suggests a walking holiday for Fionan and three of their mates. To their horror Ruth insists that her brother, who is known as The Machine (Peter McDonald), accompanies them. The Machine is brash, loud and head-melting, with a reputation for causing stupendous amounts of trouble. Despite the boys’ best efforts, The Machine finds out where they’re going and shows up for the weekend, creating mayhem, antagonising the lads, and basically being a complete liability.

There are some very funny moments in the film: The Machine’s altercation with an electric fence; the boys doing the ‘Emperor Penguin’ shuffle to keep warm whilst nude and lost in the forest; the desecration of an ancient burial mound to find some lost car keys. Peter McDonald is the stand-out star in the film. His portrayal of The Machine is hilariously funny, yet heartwarming and with considerable depth and sensitivity. I also loved Andrew Scott’s performance; his confession to Fionan in the forest is a very emotionally affecting scene.

So if like me, you missed The Stag when it came out, rectify it immediately. If you like a quintessentially Irish sense of humour, you’ll get some guaranteed laughs out of it.

I spent a lovely afternoon last week wandering around Stoneybatter, culminating in a visit to Lilliput Press, an independent publisher and bookshop on Sitric Road. Lilliput were in the news news last year when Donal Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart, first published by Lilliput, made the Man Booker shortlist. They seem to be on to another winner with Rob Doyle’s debut Here Are the Young Men, published in June. Within weeks of Irish publication Doyle had landed a deal with Bloomsbury who will be publishing the book in the UK this year and the US in 2015.

Here Are the Young Men is the story of Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney, four friends from Dublin who have just finished the Leaving Cert. and are intent on enjoying their first summer of freedom. They drink, do drugs, roam aimlessly around the city, watch porn, start fights, and hang out with drug dealers and punks who are well past their sell-by date. It seems like the stuff of most young men’s teenage experiences these days, but as the book progresses we see the characters respond to their new freedom in different, sometimes violent and unsettling, ways.

The apathy the four have in the face of modern life and the alienation they feel, as well as the spot-on dialogue, is reminiscent at times of Trainspotting. And as the violence progresses and one character seems to descend into sociopathy, I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange too. Which isn’t to say that the novel is predictable or derivative at all, and in fact it’s interesting to see this subject matter in an Irish context.

I read the book in an evening, which tells you how well Doyle has paced the book. It becomes increasingly dark in tone and there were a couple of scenes where I actually felt queasy at the prospect of what was going to happen, but there are very funny moments too, such as Matthew’s weekend spent with Scag (not the name his mother gave him, one presumes) – seducing two Norwegian tourists, doing drugs and cadging drinks, and eventually having group sex in a hostel.

Here Are the Young Men is an exciting debut and I’m delighted that Rob Doyle has had such success with it so far. I keep saying, it’s a great time for Irish fiction!

“Mankind is at a crisis point. The Earth can no longer sustain us. A motley group of scientists have come up with a completely implausible, spectacularly ridiculous plan that is our species’ only hope.” These are words, that when uttered in film trailers, make me very happy indeed. If it’s a disaster movie, I’m in. If it’s a disaster movie set in space, I’ve already bought the popcorn and am waiting for you in the lobby.

Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, is out this November and stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine. There have been a couple of teaser trailers in the last few months, but last week at Comic Con, Nolan revealed the newest trailer which contains some pretty spectacular cinematography. Here’s hoping that the movie won’t be too much of an American cheese-fest in terms of moral messaging and sentimentality. Roll on November!

 

Meave Brennan.  January 6, 1917– November 1st 1993

Maeve Brennan
6th January 1917 – 1st November 1993

I am now back into writing mode, having taken a wee bit of a mental holiday over the last few weeks. I’ve commenced a new project and am fairly immersed in it, so as a result at bedtime I want to read something short as I don’t really have the energy to get into something doorstop-sized. I went into Hodges Figgis a couple of weeks ago in order to stock up on some short stories and ended up with Maeve Brennan’s collection The Rose Garden and Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object. I had long wanted to read Brennan and so I started with her.

One of Ireland’s foremost short story writers, Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and grew up in Ranelagh. Brennan’s father was appointed as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States and so the family moved to Washington when Maeve was seventeen. She went on to get a degree in English and moved to New York where she began writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar. She was soon noticed by the New Yorker magazine and she went to work there in 1949, first as a social diarist and then as a short story writer.

Brennan was beautiful, stylish and a glamorous fixture on the New York literary scene. She married once to St. Clair McKelway, the New Yorker’s Managing Editor, but he was not a safe bet – alcoholic, manic depressive and already divorced three times – and the marriage disintegrated after five years. Brennan remained single for the rest of her life and never had children. Towards the end she became badly alcoholic and struggled with mental health issues. She became something of a bag lady, sleeping in the toilets at the New Yorker, or occasionally staying in one of the hotels for transients on 42nd Street. She died of a heart attack aged seventy-six and is buried in Queen’s, New York.

Many of the stories in The Rose Garden are set in the upmarket New York suburb of Herbert’s Retreat, based on Sneden’s Landing where she lived with McKelway. Brennan often uses the same characters in these stories: an overbearing theatre critic called Charles Runyon, the maids working in the kitchens of the grand houses, social climbing wives and their put-upon husbands. These stories are brilliant; scathing, beautifully observed and very funny. Five of the stories are set in Dublin, including “The Holy Terror”, a study of a ladies-room attendant in a hotel, whose contemptuous attitude finally leads to her downfall.

While I haven’t yet finished the book I am interested in reading more of Brennan’s work, particularly The Springs of Affection. In common with other great short story writers, she has a way of compressing huge amounts of detail into deftly crafted sentences, making her stories rich and layered. Much can be learned!

For all the grammar sticklers, cunning linguists and word nerds out there, Weird Al Yankovic has written a song just for you (and me). It’s called “Word Crimes” and the melody is taken from “Blurred Lines”, however the lyrics are a million times better. He castigates those who spell words using numbers in text messages, those who say expresso instead of espresso, misuse of apostrophes and more. It’s well worth a listen.

Weird Al is taking the internet by storm recently having released eight videos in eight days, all from his new album Mandatory Fun, and Billboard are predicting that he might just nab the number one album spot later this week almost thirty years after “Eat It” made him a phenomenon.

The Multiverse

is a blog from an Irish writer and DJ which takes in a wide range of subject matter as follows: Monday’s blogs are related to literature and writing; Tuesday is fashion, style and beauty; Wednesday is music; Thursday is TV and cinema; and Friday is a miscellany.

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