Some wonderful prose from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I can’t resist sharing my delight in the prose of Tom Wolfe. The description of this party goes on for several pages and is so totally and completely entertaining I can’t put the book down. Oh, the X-rays and the Lemon Tarts! I’d be annoyed on behalf of these women only I’m quite sure it’s all true. I hope you enjoy these few excerpts.

“All the men and women in this hall were arranged in clusters, conversational bouquets, so to speak. There were no solitary figures, no strays . . . There were no men under thirty-five and precious few under forty. The women came in two varieties. First there were women in their late thirties and in their forties and older (women ‘of a certain age’), all of them skin and bones (starved to near perfection). To compensate for the concupiscence missing from their juiceless ribs and atrophied backsides, they turned to the dress designers. This season no puffs, flounces, pleats, ruffles, bibs, bows, battings, scallops, laces, darts, or shirs on the bias were too extreme. They were social X-rays, to use the phrase that had bubbled up into Sherman’s own brain. Second there were the so-called Lemon Tarts. These were women in their twenties or early thirties, mostly blondes (the Lemon in the Tarts), who were the second, third, or fourth wives or live-in girlfriends of men over forty or fifty or sixty (or seventy), the sort of women men refer to, quite without thinking, as girls. This season the Tart was able to flaunt the natural advantages of youth by showing her legs from well above the knee and emphasizing her round bottom (something no X-ray had).”

“A blazing bony little woman popped out from amid all the clusters in the entry gallery and came towards them. She was an X-ray with a teased blond pageboy and many tiny grinning teeth. Her emaciated body was inserted into a black-and-red dress with ferocious puffed shoulders, a very narrow waist, and a long skirt. Her face was wide and round – but without an ounce of flesh on it . . . Her clavicle stuck out so far Sherman had the feeling he could reach out and up the two big bones. He could see lamplight through her ribcage.”

“There she was, standing over near the fireplace, laughing so hard – her new party laugh – laughing so hard her hair was bouncing. She was making a new sound, hock hock hock hock hock hock hock. She was listening to a barrel-chested old man with receding gray hair and no neck. The third member of the bouquet, a woman, elegant, slim, and fortyish, was not nearly so amused. She stood like a marble angel. Sherman made his way through the hive, past the knees of some people sitting down on a huge round Oriental hassock, toward the fireplace. He had to push his way through a flotilla of puffed gowns and boiling faces . . . “

What do you think? Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil | A review.

So: This is a great book. A non-fiction book that reads like a novel. Everything about it is perfect, for me anyway. The pace, the shape, the characters, the dialogue, the prose. A complete entertainment.

The story is told in the first person by a New York journalist who is spending some time in Savannah. And before I say anything else let me talk about Savannah. I felt as though I was there; I could see and hear and smell everything. Indeed, I felt suffused with Savannah. I read and re-read various pages, trying to fathom how the author made it so atmospheric. Sometimes, you hear about a place being almost a character in a book, and that’s how it is with this one. An old, beautiful, city where the inhabitants feel insulated from the rest of America, and they like things just the way they are.

“It had just rained; the air was hot and steamy. I felt enclosed in a semi-tropical terrarium, sealed off from a world that suddenly seemed a thousand miles away.”

The book is built around a murder and the court case that follows, but in a way, that is just the backdrop for so much more. Jim Williams, the accused man, is wealthy, lives in a fantastic house filled with wonderful furniture and fittings. His conversations with the journalist are so entertaining; if I was in a room with this man, I’d be hanging on every word. He talks about some of the characters who inhabit this hot, steamy Savannah. One such is an old gentleman who walks an invisible dog and gets paid for it. Everyone accepts this as normal, and they speak to the old man as though the dog was real.

And then there’s Luther:

“At other times, Luther pasted the wings of a wasp on top of a fly’s own wings to improve its aerodynamics. Or he made one wing slightly shorter that the other so it would fly in circles for the rest of its life.”

I’ll only mention one more or this review will be as long as a gospel!

Joe Odom: He throws lavish parties which seem to go on indefinitely with music and laughter continuing through the nights. This reminded me of The Great Gatsby until I realised that Joe is a serial squatter. He always seems to find a suitable empty house for his parties; people absent from their homes for a period of time never know that Joe and his friends have been carousing there for months.

And Chablis, a drag artist, reckless and unpredictable. And the voodoo queen, Minerva. Enough!!

The ending is perfect. This is a totally satisfying book. I kept forgetting that it’s non-fiction. I read it on my kindle but I think I’ll have to buy a copy for the bookcase.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – some thoughts . . .

I saw the movie of this book a long time ago, and recently took a notion to read it. Something must have sparked it off, perhaps something I read here on WordPress. If so, thanks to whoever it was. I’m enjoying it so much, and will write a proper review when I’m finished. I should say here, that it’s a non-fiction book about an antiques dealer, but it reads like fiction.

I have never before been so drawn in to the atmosphere of a book. Even when I’m not reading, I feel like I’m in Savannah. Here are a few words:

‘There was ample evidence in the records of the historical society that in Savannah’s palmier days it had been a cosmopolitan city and its citizens an unusually worldly sort. Mayor Richard Arnold, the man who had sweet-talked General Sherman in and out of town during the Civil War, was typical of the breed. He was a physician, a scholar, an epicure, a connoisseur of fine wines, and a gentleman who took his social obligations seriously. He wrote in one letter, “Yesterday, I entertained the Hon. Howell Cobb at a sociable dinner party. We sat down at 3 o’clock and got up at half-past nine.” Mayor Arnold’s six-and-a-half-hour dinner lent weight to what I had been told about Savannah’s fondness for parties, and it put me in mind of the genteel merriment going on nonstop in the town-house down the street from me at 16 East Jones Street.

My casual surveillance of the house paid off one day at noontime. A car drew up to the curb and screeched to a jolting stop. At the wheel was a neatly dressed elderly lady with white hair as neat as pie crust. She had made no attempt to parallel park but had instead pulled into the space front end first as if tethering a horse to a hitching post. She got out and marched to the front door, took a ball-peen hammer out of her purse and methodically smashed all the little panes of glass around the door. Then she put the hammer back in her purse and walked back to her car. The incident didn’t seem to make any difference to the people in the house. The piano went right on playing, and the voices went right on laughing. The panes of glass were replaced, but not until several days later.’

Does that give any idea of the very strong flavour of this book? I seem to be totally subsumed into Savannah!

An Excerpt from DANCER by Colum McCann – a gripping story based on the life of Rudolph Nureyev.

The date I have written in this book is February ’19, and I haven’t read it since. I loved it; the writing was terrific, and flesh was put on a distant star. I picked it up the other day, and I’m ready to re-read.

It was a hot summer in Ufa, the city enveloped in smoke from the factories and ash blown in from the forest fires, off the Belaya river. A thin film of soot lay on the benches in Lenin Park. I was finding it difficult to sit and breathe, so I finally plucked up the courage to spend the last of my money on the extravagance of the cinema.

Having not been there since Anna passed on, I though I might be able to revisit her, twine a lock of her grey hair around my finger.

The Motherland cinema was located down Lenin Street, gone slightly to ruin, the beginnings of cracks in the magnificent facade, posters yellowing in their glass cases. Inside, fans on the ceiling were at full force in the heat. I hobbled in on my cane and, having forgotten my eyeglasses, sat close to the front.

Word had gone around that Rudi was featured in the newsreel and there was a noise in the air, his name being whispered by what were presumably were old classmates, young men and ladies, some old schoolteachers. Yulia had written to say that in Petersburg young women had begun to wait outside the stage door to get a glimpse of him. She mentioned that he was even due to dance for Khrushchev. The thought was chilling and wonderful – the barefoot Ufa boy performing in Moscow. I chuckled, remembering the names Rudi had been called at school: Pigeon, Girlie, Frogface. All of that had been forgotten now that he was a solo Kirov artist – the arrogance that had been taken from the air and put in the victory soup.

After the anthem the newsreel came on. He was featured dancing the Spaniard in Laurencia. The sight of him was an acute but pleasing thorn. His hair was dyed black for the role and his make-up was garish. I found myself holding Anna’s hand and mid-way through she leaned across to me. Rudi was being savage and exotic, she said. He was bringing a flagrant ruthlessness to his idea of dance. She whispered urgently that he was altogether too flamboyant, that his feet weren’t pointed well, his line was slightly wrong, that he needed to cut his hair.

I thought: How wonderful – even as a ghost Anna didn’t hold back.

That wonderful narrative drive that keeps you turning pages; one of life’s best experiences.

From “A Moveable Feast” by Hemingway

When I first read this book, I had never been to Paris; I was enchanted. I had read most of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald though, and I followed their adventures in Paris with delight. When I did eventually go to Paris, I found that some of the cafés mentioned in the book, were no longer in existence. But of course, I loved it anyway.

Has anyone seen the movie “Midnight in Paris”? It’s a Woody Allen movie and covers the same sort of territory. Any writer, or reader, would love it.

‘It now began to rain heavily and we took refuge in the next village at a café. I cannot remember all the details of that afternoon but when we were finally in a hotel at must have been Chalon-sur-Saone, it was so late that the drug stores were closed. Scott had undressed and gone to bed as soon as we reached the hotel. He did not mind dying of congestion of the lungs, he said. It was only the question of who was to look after Zelda and young Scotty. I did not see very well how I could look after them since I was having a healthily rough time looking after my wife, Hadley and young son Bumby, but I said I would do my best and Scott thanked me. I must see that Zelda did not drink and that Scotty should have an English governess.

We had sent our clothes to be dried and were in our pajamas. It was still raining outside but it was cheerful in the room with the electric light on. Scott was lying in bed to conserve his strength for his battle against the disease. I had taken his pulse, which was seventy-two, and had felt his forehead, which was cool. I had listened to his chest and had him breathe deeply, and his chest sounded all right.

“Look, Scott,” I said. “You’re perfectly O.K. If you want to do the best thing from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whisky, and you take an aspirin with yours and you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head.”

“Those old wives’ remedies,” Scott said.

“You haven’t any temperature. How the hell are you going to have congestion of the lungs without a temperature?”

“Don’t swear at me,” Scott said. “How do you know I haven’t a temperature?”

“Your pulse is normal and you haven’t any fever to the touch.”

“To the touch,” Scott said bitterly. “If you’re a real friend, get me a thermometer.”

“I’m in pajamas.”

“Send for one.”‘

Can’t you just see the pair of them, bickering in their pajamas! Scott, here, reminds me of Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory.

Best hangover description, ever!

From Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. i enjoyed this book so much, and I think it’s time for me to read it again. I always remembered that the hangover description here couldn’t be improved on. The pain of it was staggering. So here’s a taste of it:

The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple and his right eye and his right ear. If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out . . .

The telephone was on the floor, in the corner, near the window, on the brown carpet. The carpet was disgusting. Synthetic; the Americans manufactured filthy carpet; Metalon, Streptolon, deep, shaggy, with a feel that made his flesh crawl. Another explosion; he was looking straight at it, a white telephone and a slimy white cord lying there in a filthy shaggy brown nest of Streptolon. Behind the Venetian blinds the sun was so bright it hurt his eyes . . .

These days he often woke up like this, poisonously hung over, afraid to move an inch and filled with an abstract feeling of despair and shame. Whatever he had done was submerged like a monster at the bottom of a cold dark lake. His memory had drowned in the night, and he could only feel the icy despair. He had to look for the monster deductively, fathom by fathom. Sometimes he knew that whatever it had been, he couldn’t face it . . .

The telephone exploded again. He opened his eyes and squinted at the sun-drenched modern squalor, and with his eyes open it was even worse . . .

He rolled out of the bed and put his feet on the floor, and the horrible yolk shifted. He was thrown into a violent headache. He wanted to vomit, but he knew it would hurt his head too much for him to possibly allow it to happen. He started towards the telephone. He sank to his knees and then to all fours. He crawled to the telephone, picked up the receiver, and then lay down on the carpet, hoping the yolk would settle again.

“Hello,” he said.

So, there you are. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed typing it out, chuckling as I worked.

A review of “Iron Lake” by William Kent Kreuger

So, I was looking forward to reading this book as it had been highly recommended, and I did like it, but not as much as I expected. To begin with the main character Cork O’Connor is interesting and likable. He is part American Indian and there are quite a lot of American Indian characters in the book, known collectively as “the people” which interested me very much as I know nothing of their culture.

The story is gripping from the off – incomprehensible murders, a wealthy politician, a crumbling marriage, a sweet love story – and secrets and silence everywhere. An occasional mention of a supernatural element adds to the whole but doesn’t intrude. There’s an easygoing quality as well, and many back stories, but they are so engaging – and easygoing doesn’t mean slow.

However. nearing the end of the book I found that some situations were very contrived to allow the hero to unravel the mystery. Also, the denouement is very drawn out and quite boring. It was disappointing after so good a story.

There isn’t any quotable dialogue here but the pace and shape of the story is good. This is the first in a series of books featuring Cork O’Connor and I will definitely read another one in the future. If formally reviewing this book, I would give it three and a half stars.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

First lines Friday – with a nod to A Couple of B’s!

FIRST LINES:

“To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The ploughs crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the grey country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

Can you guess that novel?

A hint: It’s a famous novel and a famous movie by a famous American writer.

You will all have guessed I’m sure!

The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.

Link to A Couple of B’s – A Couple of B’s ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!