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.

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

An excerpt from the wonderful book – The Grapes of Wrath.

This page from The Grapes of Wrath has stayed with me for forty years at least. I could feel the heat, smell the dust, see the insects going about their business, and most of all, the land turtle, star of the scene.

The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging its high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like finger-nails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch . . .

For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armoured tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs . . . For a long moment the turtle lay still, and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out . . .

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked back into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway . . . Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe-nails slipped a fraction in the dust.

Isn’t this wonderful? I left out a few bits – it’s very long, but unforgettable – for me anyway. Steinbeck rocks!

A Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.

I haven’t read any reviews of this book but I’m looking forward to doing that as soon as I have posted this. I’ve never really been a fan of Anne Tyler’s but I loved this book and I will read it again sometime.

The first and last sections pose a question:

‘You have to wonder what goes through the mind of man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.’

I expected a boring, colourless man with no joy in his life, no excitements, nothing unexpected, doing the same things at the same time every day. But I fell in love with Micah Mortimer when, a few pages in, I read that he spoke aloud to himself – in what he thought of as a foreign accent – while he did his chores about the house. Monday was the day for mopping the floor:

‘”Zee dreaded moppink,” he said. “Zee moppink of zee floors.”‘

This delighted me; I was on his side forever; I loved him. Next, we find out about the “traffic gods” – these supreme beings whom he imagines watching him when he’s driving, commenting to each other in tones of awe at the perfection of his moves:

‘”Flawless,” traffic god murmured.’

I’m beginning to appreciate now that Micah is not a dull, blank, robotic man and when a young lad appears at his door claiming that he’s actually Micah’s son, he becomes even more interesting. (Not only does he have a present, but maybe a past too!) Instead of turning Brink away he brings him in and feeds him and lets him stay for a few days.

Enter Cass, Micah’s long-term woman friend; a tall buxom woman; a school-teacher. She plays music all the time in her apartment; the television talks all evening whether they are watching it or not. Micah finds it irritating but he considers Cass restful to look at so he puts up with it when he’s there. Now Cass has a problem; she may have to leave her apartment. It never ocurs to Micah that she’s waiting for him to invite her to move in with him and this causes a – mostly unspoken – breach between them.

‘”In fact,” Cass said steadily, “what did you do? Quick-quick invite the nearest stranger into your spare room.”‘

And of course, there’s his wonderful four sisters and their families, boisterous, happy, loving, interested in everything that happens to Micah; they know Cass well and like her very much. Micah tolerates and loves them equally.

I thought about Micah a lot; he’s very self-sufficient, content to live alone, kindly when anyone asks for help but always at a distance – until Cass suggests a break-up:

‘”Something hit him in the concave place just below his rib cage.”‘

I found the writing warm and humourous, and delicious – when Micah meets his old girlfriend:

‘” . . . she ws so sharp-edged, both literally and figuratively – a small, vivacious mosquito of a girl, all elbows and darting movements.”‘

It’s the word – mosquito – that makes that sentence for me. The pacing was perfect and the ending just as it should be. I should refer to the redhead of the title – a fire hydrant Micah always thought was a person when he caught a glimpse of it, although he knew it was not. To me, it just meant that Micah had imagination but perhaps there is a deeper, hidden meaning to it. I don’t know.

Hidden meaning or not, I give Redhead by the Side of the Road 5 stars. *****