Tag Archives: humour

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick DeWitt

Undermajordomo Minor - Patrick DeWitt“What do you want from your life, Lucy?”

“Not to die”

“Beyond that. Were you to live, what would you hope might come to pass?”

“Something to happen”

So, Christmas came early for Patrick DeWitt fans with the release of his third novel, Undermajordomo Minor. The Sisters Brothers, his Booker shortlisted 2011 western put him right there on my awesome authors list. Cracking open his latest offering, I hoped against all hope that it wouldn’t be a huge disappointment.

Luckily, it didn’t even take a full chapter to set my mind at ease.

Undermajordomo Minor follows Lucy (Lucien) Minor as he spreads his 17 year-old wings and leaves the old homestead behind to see what the rest of the world has in store. In the blurb, Lucy is described as a ‘compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling’. While this is more-or-less true, he’s still a very likeable character.

In his small-town, teenage innocence, his primary goal in life is to engineer a situation in which he can point at something with a pipe. That’s not much of an aspiration, I suppose, but what more can you expect from someone who, on their deathbed, merely wishes that he wasn’t so bored.

Lucy’s exciting new life begins when he takes a job at the Castle Von Aux, as the assistant to the majordomo, Mr Olderglough. Things aren’t all sunshine and gumdrops at the castle – the Baron hides away in the daytime and prowls the halls at night, mad with heartbreak since the Baroness upped sticks and headed to the West.

Meanwhile, Lucy explores the village, becomes acquainted with the local thieves and gamblers and meets Klara, the object of his affection. That goes just about as smoothly as you’d expect and reinforces one of the themes of the book – that love is about the worst kind of torment that can befall a man.

All-in-all, I loved the book. It’s funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it’s fantastical, without the need for witches and goblins; and it feels like you’re being told a story. After reading a couple of what-does-it-really-mean type books, a fireside tale like this was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Will you like it? I can’t answer that unfortunately, but I can say that you should give it a go. Actually, what are you doing at the moment? If you can, get down to your local bookshop and read the first chapter. If you find you’re on chapter 5 before you know what’s happened, then take that bad boy home and prepare yourself for a jolly good read!

(Pay for it first, obviously)

Incidentally, if you’re in London on the 1st October, Patrick DeWitt will be appearing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road for a chat with Jessamy Calkin. You can buy your tickets here for a piddling 8 quid a pop. What else are you going to do on a Thursday evening?

You Should Know About Don Camillo

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguin

The Don Camillo series – Giovannino Guareschi

You know what? You should know about Don Camillo and his adversary, Peppone. Don Camillo is the Catholic priest of a little village in Italy’s Po Valley – his ‘little world’. When we first meet Don Camillo, it is in an Italy trying to find its identity again after the Second World War. The eponymous priest is himself based on Don Camillo Valota, a priest who fought the Nazis as a partisan and was detained in Dachau and Mauthausen.

The fictional Don Camillo is enormous and “about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars”, with hands like shovels and size 12 shoes. His physical immensity is matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Like all priests, he talks to Jesus and has a particularly good relationship with the crucifix in his chapel – because this Jesus talks back.

The Communist mayor of the town, Peppone, is equally Don Camillo’s bitter political nemesis and his trusted friend and the dynamic between the pair is brilliant. Don Camillo, although a man of God, is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s ludicrous, politically charged schemes. Peppone isn’t blessed with Don Camillo’s intelligence but whatever he lacks, he makes up for in a militant belief in Russia, Lenin and the People. He’s a man with big ambitions and, as the mayor of the town, a man of influence. Sure, he’s an idiotic and quick-tempered communist but he’s well liked – so he must be doing something right.

Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary ceasefire in order to look after the interests of the town and, with a duo like Don Camillo and Peppone protecting it, the town is in danger only of farce.

Written and illustrated by Giovannino Guareschi, the first of the Don Camillo stories appeared in Candido magazine, in December, 1946, a couple of days before Christmas. It was so popular that Guareschi was bombarded with letters from fans demanding that he write more.

They’re like that in Italy.

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguinOn the whole, each story involves some farcical situation, usually sparked off by the latest mischievous episode in the ongoing feud between Don Camillo and Peppone. Having been born and raised in the region, Guareschi evokes post-war rural Italy perfectly. I wasn’t around the Po Valley at the time, mind you, but you can’t disguise the genuine article.

The stories can be read individually, if you like, but they blend together quite nicely. They were first published in English by Gollancz in the 50s as gorgeous little hardbacks. They’re ridiculously hard to find but I’ve tracked down two Penguins from the 60s and 70s so they’re probably easier to get hold of.

I’ve only recently come to learn of Don Camillo and it’s a perfect example of a series I should have known about. Sadly, it has faded into obscurity a little. I think anyone who has had the pleasure would agree that these books deserve to be read by everyone.

In the 50s and 60s, a series of five films were released starring French comic actor, Fernandel in the title role. Like the books, the movies are fantastic, but a nightmare to find in the real world although you can pick them up online for a small fortune. The first movie is available on Amazon for £15-£22 but take my word for it – it’s money well-spent.

 

A Bright Moon for Fools – Jasper Gibson: A Review

A Bright Moon for Fools - Jasper GibsonMeet Harry Christmas – an impatient, curmudgeonly Englishman with a drinking problem and a huge chip on his shoulder. After stealing some money from his girlfriend and incurring the wrath of William Slade, her psychotic stepson, Harry flees to the Venezuela – the ancestral home of his dead wife. Slade would never follow him there, would he?

Of course he would – you need some kind of unreasonable antagonist in a story such as this and they don’t get much more unreasonable than William Slade. Slade is a predatory oddball with a knife fetish and a very loose understanding of what constitutes consensual sex. When he isn’t raping or torturing, he is obsessively focussed on a single goal – killing Harry Christmas.

This spells trouble but Harry Christmas is one of those unpredictable drunks who needs no help in wreaking a havoc all of his own creation. He’s not without faults but, as the book progressed, I couldn’t help feeling a warped respect for Harry Christmas. Every now and then, he rails against ‘The Rot’ – the umbrella term for all that is wrong with the modern world and in the assault, it’s easy to find yourself agreeing with him.

But then you remember that he’s a compulsive liar and a dishonest criminal with a dark core of bitterness. We slowly discover the source of his hatred and soon realize that Harry has plenty of reasons to scorn the fates. After all, how can anyone else dare to be happy in his presence when life has dealt him such a cruel hand?

The story itself is great fun – it’s a farcical chase around Venezuela that falls somewhere between No Country for Old Men and A Confederacy of Dunces, having all of the terror of the hunt with the comedy of a despicable protagonist.

It’s not all laughs though. There are a few moments in the book that are so shockingly horrific as to leave no space for humour. I suppose this is Jasper Gibson’s way of emphasising Slade’s threat. He is a destructive sadist and the author treats us to a few scenes of his perversion. These scenes are in alarming contrast with the rest of the story and it can take a while to readjust to the humour after such a jolt.

That said, it’s still a great read with a visually-striking cover and, at £14.99, it’s a reasonably-priced hardback. It is, so far, the only offering from independent publisher, Inside the Dog Press, which is great news for all of you with anti-corporate agendas.

Jasper Gibson is the co-founder of The Poke which is a great way to waste a bit of time that would be better spent reading all of those books you have stacked up. Check out their review of A Bright Moon for Fools below…

Why you should read Flann O’Brien

Flann O'Brien Books

My Flann O’Brien Collection…so far.

Last week, Rome had the honour of holding the second International Flann O’Brien conference. It was a great opportunity for Brian O’Nolan fans to come along and talk about Myles Na Gopaleen. If you’re a little confused, don’t worry – you’re meant to be.

Perhaps it’s his Catholic upbringing which led Brian O’Nolan to embody a holy trinity all of his own. We have Brian, the civil servant – Flann, the novelist – and Myles the columnist and I’m here to tell you why you should get familiar with at least two of the three.

joyceHe’s the other James Joyce

He practically invented post-modernism with At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a book about a student who spends his days drinking in Dublin’s bars when he really should be studying. That’s the short description. The book is comprised of several parallel narratives – each one crazier than the last – ranging from retellings of Irish legends to pioneering experiments in meta-fiction.

Though they were mutual admirers of each other’s work, O’Nolan wasn’t above poking fun at his literary counterpart. In the Dalkey Archive, Joyce is cast as a disgruntled barman furious that some imposter has been using his identity to publish sacrilegious filth.  The filth in question is, of course, Ulysses.

peigHe isn’t Peig Sayers

For Irish people of a certain generation, the very utterance of the name ‘Peig’ can still provoke horrific flashbacks of compulsory Gaelige lessons. It was indeed a torture with no equal, but at least it gave us the skills needed to get Flann O’Brien’s jokes.

There are lots of jokes in Flann’s work that rely on knowledge of the Irish language. One example that springs to mind comes from the pages of the Dalkey Archive. Teague McGettigan is commissioned by DeSelby to paint a sign for his gate. DeSelby wants him to convey the enormity of his lawn, but in the old tongue. Now, the Irish word for ‘big’ is ‘mór’, pronounced ‘more’. In his attempt to translate his employer’s intentions, Teague gets it a bit wrong and DeSelby returns home to find a sign on his gate that says ‘lawnmower’.

Another linguistic pun of his was to spell English word as though they were Irish words, so instead of writing a piece for his column, he’d occasionally raight a píos fomhair higheas colm. I’ll move on before I completely alienate the English speaking world.

He’s hilarious!

Above all reasons to recommend Flann O’Brien, I’d cite his humour. For him, the English language was a plaything and his mastery is evident in the wealth of puns and double-entendres within his work.

Reading Flann O’Brien in public should be done with caution. I’ve had to excuse myself on more than one occasion for disturbing the peace of various alehouses. As an illustration of the Flann Effect, here’s Tommy Tiernan reading a passage concerning the invention of anti-alcohol.

“A cliché is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage…”

For a bite-size taste of what Flann is about, his Catechism of Cliché makes for a great snack.

I’ll leave you with a few appetisers:

When things are few, what also are they?
Far between.

What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?
Running.

How low are they running?
Dangerously.

What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.

For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.

What else can be thrown out?
A hint.

In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
It can be dropped.

What else is sometimes dropped?
The subject.

Jon Ronson: a love story

las-jrRead Jon Ronson.

That’s my infallible advice for the day.

For those who don’t know, Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist with a penchant for the weirder side of life. We’ve all fallen a little bit in love with him here at the bookshop.

My personal infatuation began last year when I received a proof copy of The Psychopath Test. It sat on my bookshelf for weeks before I decided to give it a go. I was hooked from the start.

The eponymous test is a questionnaire of sorts called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist used by professional mind-wizards to categorise potential misfits. The book deals mainly with the trouble of defining psychopaths and Ronson’s tireless quest for answers puts him in contact with some of the strangest, most frightening characters in print.

The theme of mental health appears to a large extent in most of his work. In the book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, Jon tackles the murky world of conspiracy theorists – those who believe that there is, somewhere, a hidden elite controlling the masses in all manner of nefarious ways. Here, he talks to white supremacists about their rebranding strategy, to David Icke about extra-dimensional lizard-people and to the Rev. Ian Paisley about the so-secret-it’s-obvious Papist plot for global domination.

Thanks to Hollywood, Ronson is probably best known for his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. This book follows the fates of certain top secret U.S. Military projects created to harness the powers of the unknown. The title refers to a project in which U.S. ‘psychic’ soldiers stared at goats attempting to stop their hearts with the power of the mind.

His latest book, Lost at Sea, is a collection of various articles from the past few years. Here, you’ll find everything from behind-the-scenes mysticism at Deal or No Deal to the dark workings of targeted advertising to UFO hunting with Robbie Williams. I’ve been dipping into it regularly over the last couple of months, taking it slowly to prolong the joy. I’m not sure if ‘joy’ is the most appropriate word – last night I read an article about the shocking number of people who disappear from cruise ships and the evident cover-ups that result.

Because Jon Ronson focusses on the more wacky side of darkness, his books are very funny. In the time-honoured British tradition of self-deprecation, he paints himself as the weedy, middle-class outsider desperately struggling to understand what makes people believe the things they do.  At times, however, we are reminded that the characters are in fact real people with real problems and not just sideshows to be exploited.

So if you’re drawn by curiosity to the darkest, most morbid side of life, do give Jon Ronson’s books a go. When you’ve run out of things to read, pop over to jonronson.com and check out his Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson On… All seven series are available to download for free so be sure and snap them up before someone changes their mind. I like to listen to them when I’m ironing but how you chose to enjoy them is entirely up to you.

Try a Little Kurt

You know, I’m still surprised at the number of customers who, on hearing the name ‘Kurt Vonnegut’, look blankly at me as though I’ve just sneezed.

Without going into nauseating detail, reading a book by Vonnegut is like hearing an anecdote from an American door-to-door vacuum salesman who just missed his calling as a stand-up comedian.

His patter is so authentic that even his less-impressive stories are brought to life by his descriptions, his characters and his voice.

In the words of a stand up comedian who missed his calling as a door-to-door vacuum salesman, “It’s the way he tells ’em”.

For a limited time, we’ll be stocking the entire Vonnegut backlist in store and we’ll even knock 25% off.

And it’s not even Christmas!