Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Originally published at Verbicide

Following in the footsteps of Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the latest addition to the David Sedaris library has hallmarks of his classics: the dysfunctional family values, the well-observed minutiae of human behaviour. Unlike in his classic tomes, however, the characters of this book aren’t human.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of animal fables, absurd enough to remind you of Edward Lear and wise enough to evoke Aesop, especially when they have titles like “The Vigilant Rabbit” and “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat.” Where Aesop’s fables are cautionary or moral, those of Sedaris are rich comedic performances: satires of common human behaviour and rituals. He documents a slice of life in which mothers and fathers trade parenting tips in the schoolyard, but puts a spin on it by making those parents into chattering storks. He writes an hilarious dialogue between a housewife and her stylist, but the two women are actually a cat and a baboon. There’s something very pleasing about a society in which the skills and traits of a baboon will guarantee a career in the beauty industry.

There’s a certain kind of misanthropy in the stories and a whiff of nihilism: for all our pretenses as humans, are we not really a hoard of pooping, gossiping, socially-awkward, baby-producing animals? Like so many Richard Scarry characters, we are a mammalian society of naively evolved carbon-heads, muddling along and doing what we can. It’s not until you embed the common behaviors observed by Sedaris into his feathered and furry characters (sweetly illustrated by Ian Faulkner) that you get the anthropological distance required to make this observation without feeling weird.

Sedaris is known as an excellent public speaker (cutting his teeth at National Public Radio), so it feels appropriate to mention his excellent reading at the Librairie Paragraphe Bookstore in Montreal as part of his ongoing book tour. The hour-long reading added fantastic value to the book. In addition to a deadpan and adorably maudlin reading from the book’s titular tale (the sad story of sciuridae struggling to make dinner conversation and understand jazz), he read from a story excised from the final book on grounds of taste. It is called “The Shit- and Vomit-eating Flies” and depicts a conversation between a pair of foodie bluebottles: which parts of town have the most delicious vomit and feces. It’s a shame the story was cut from the book, but it made a very meaty bonus for those who made it to the event. He also read from a condensed work in progress: highlights from his personal tour diary, which will presumably be different depending on which leg of the tour you catch him. Continuing with the animal theme, one of these tour diary excerpts concerns a girl whose t-shirt had allegedly been “painted by a dolphin with scoliosis.” How and why a dolphin could be cajoled into painting a t-shirt boggles the mind. The detail of the scoliosis, much like the observational details salt-and-peppered throughout Squirrel Seeks Chipunk, can only further baffle and delight.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Originally published at The Skinny

Haruki Murakami’s style is deliberate, economical and has a unique ‘sufficiency’ which lends itself startlingly well to magical realism. His style somehow succeeds in making everyday non-adventures – say, cooking spaghetti – into engaging portraits of human activity and when he finally pulls you into Wonderland nothing could seem more normal. He can take you to a ‘reconstituted elephant factory’ or a library of unicorn skulls and it’ll seem like the most natural thing in the world. In his latest novel, an intelligent nineteen-year-old student gets sucked into a world of Chinese gangsters, prostitutes, sleazy motels and spooky doppelgangers. It’s David Lynch territory, basically. Meanwhile, another girl finds herself in a Ringu-like situation, sucked into her television by a silent man in a cellophane mask. There’s nothing too original here but it is chilling enough to entertain, though After Dark isn’t an essential piece of Murakami. If you’re a Murakami virgin, go and read his magnum-opus stuff first: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Norwegian Wood. After Dark doesn’t add anything to his world but it certainly delivers the quality a Murakami reader would expect. It also helps that it’s translated by Jay Rubin: he’s arguably the best of the three main Murakami translators, and his work adds to the story’s beautiful austerity.

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Originally published at The Skinny

Unwarranted Re-release can occasionally be the sweetest phrase in the English language. While everyone else this summer is pretending to enjoy Mark Haddon’s dreary A Spot of Bother or Toby Litt’s adolescent Hospital, the Emperor’s New Clothes effect can be swiftly bypassed by reading this republished Bukowski classic instead. In Hollywood, we re-encounter Bukowski’s anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, who is now struggling against all distractions to write and to see the production of his first screenplay, “The Dance of Jim Beam”. Bukowski combines the clash of creative processes and the business-orientated world with a seedy portrait of 1980s Los Angeles. Egotistical actors, masochistic agents, dank ghettos, danker hotels and an improbable chicken-obsessed French guy are some of the dominating features of Bukowski’s tinsel town.

The novel, like other Chinaski stories, is a thinly-veiled memoir: notable events and characters of Bukowski’s LA mapped into Chinaski’s fictional topography. Insights into Bukowski’s writing process such as “I started crossing out lines. My characters talked too much”, also add to this truly entertaining read. Notes on the new edition? Howard Sounes’ introduction is remarkably self-indulgent and seems pieced together Frankenstein-style from his 1999 Bukowski biography. The cover is cheap-looking and the book is riddled with adverts for Canongate. Appropriately pulp.

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

Originally published at The Skinny

With the obvious exceptions of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell series and the brilliantly inexplicable Perry Bible Fellowship creations, newspaper ‘funnies’ are pretty shameful. But along came Posy Simmonds in 2005 with something different for the back of the Guardian’s newly reformatted literature supplement. Astonishingly, her strips, while often witty, weren’t designed to be funny, which automatically elevates them above the ‘force the clown to dance’ effect of the average newspaper strip. Instead, they deliver a friendly, almost Archers-feeling story with – gasp! – literary origins. In the case of Tamara Drewe, we have a retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd: the story of a sleepy village and of how the eponymous randy urbanite becomes the inspiration for an entire writers’ retreat. This new compilation comes with expanded and refined editions of Tamara Drewe. Lengthy paragraphs – usually internal monologues of the characters – have been added alongside the strips but it’s uncertain of what these are supposed to achieve, as the comics work brilliantly in their own right. The extra stuff sadly feels like unnecessary padding. The effect is an odd one: like wading through smelted tarmac one moment and skating along an ice rink the next. A simple straight-from-the-newspaper compilation would have been perfectly justified, as this strip remains a cut above its competitors.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Originally published at The Skinny

Dr Alfred Jones is a fish out of water. Extracted from a humdrum home life and a comfortable career at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence, he is cast into a foolhardy government-backed project designed to introduce salmon fishing to the parched Yemen. It’s East-meets-West time, kids.
Rather than being a straight novel, Paul Torday’s debut title is a fragmented collection of documents, amongst which are soulless governmental emails, sardonic newspaper items and touching excerpts from Dr. Fred’s diary. The diary entries are musical and warm while the contrasting officious language of government reports is fertile ground for wry, well judged satirical humour.

A problem, however, is that the story hinges on the absurdity of Dr. Fred’s situation and the apparent impossibility of his project. The reader is frequently reminded of the unsuitability of the sandy, politically-charged country as an environment for the cultivation of freshwater fish. But while salmon in the Yemen is certainly an odd prospect, it does not defy imagination and does not require the constant playing of the ‘wacky situation’ card. It’s the Middle East, not the rings of Saturn. Because of this, the novel is undeniably guilty of Orientalism. Yet it is done in a positive fashion and asks more questions of Western attitudes than those of Islam or the East. It is always refreshing to reopen a taboo discourse even if in a marginally parochial fashion. Mostly though, Salmon Fishing is a fun story with likable characters, a fine first novel.

The Successor by Ismail Kadare

Originally published at The Skinny

Fragmentary, confusing, dissident and frightening, The Successor is not an easy book to read. Most journalists have opted for the descriptive shorthand of likening Kadare to Kafka but while both writers dabble with the state between dreams and reality, Kafka’s ideas seem almost childish when compared to the winter-cold vision presented by Kadare. There are constant reminders that the events related actually took place in 1981 and not in some daydream dystopia: it’s a repeated slap in the face with a cold reality check ensuring that this is not mistaken for fantasy. The novel opens with the announcement of the suicide of the eponymous successor to a seat of power formerly occupied by the Communist dictator, Enver Hoxa (actually it opens with a windswept history of Albanian politics but that somehow doesn’t feel like the start of any novel). Questions arise about the nature of the death and the reader is wedged into a clamber for power and the fall of a house of godlike, yet peculiarly vulnerable rulers. Kadare mixes real fears of absolute power and oppression with the fleeing shadows and locked rooms of pulpier mystery novels. He somehow manages to identify disturbing trends occurring both then and now; to explain them; and, astoundingly, force recognition of what was previously invisible. His dreamlike passages aren’t just strange or symbolic but genuinely akin to childhood nightmares: homes invaded by familiar men in suits; a father’s autopsy conducted in the lounge. This is a long way from giant cockroaches.

The Very Best of Monty Python by Monty Python

All the material in this book is guaranteed to be old, writes Terry Gilliam in one of the book’s many prefaces, “not a single new joke or idea has been sacrificed for this tome.” This is doubly true when you discover that The Very Best of Monty Python is in fact a repackaged omnibus edition of 2000’s A Pocketful of Python. What a complete and utter scamalot.

Nonetheless, the wit of Python is timeless and certainly puts Catherine Tate and the new series of Bo’ Selecta! into perspective. Particularly pleasing is the chance to examine, in detail, the drawings from Gilliam’s animation sequences which sometimes fly by so quickly on the TV series you don’t always appreciate their uniquely strange artistry. Similarly, the lyrics to those excellent songs are printed here, and there are enough book-specific jokes to justify spending a tenner.

Sadly, some of the sketches lose their magic when reduced to script form. Unless read exactly how the Pythons deliver their lines, many of the jokes fall flat and read more akin to an office bore trying to explain the gist of a great comedy sketch he saw the previous night. The famous cheese shop skit, with John Cleese removed, becomes just a list of types of cheese.

The release is timely, coinciding with the Glasgow debut of Eric Idle’s Spamlot musical, and it’s just the right size to be put inside a Christmas stocking. What a remarkable coincidence.

Scots Who Made America by Rick Wilson

Originally published at The Skinny

The first man on the moon was the son of a Scotsman and Uncle Sam himself came from Greenock
We’ve all seen them: the portly, T-Shirted American tourists hunched over the Mitchell Library’s microfilm readers, desperately seeking evidence of their “Scotch” ancestry. Rick Wilson sheds some light on America’s curious Scotophilia: love or loathe the USA, it seems that Scotland is at least partly responsible for what America is today.

For those who thought Scotland’s key exports were Haggis, Whiskey and See-You-Jimmy bunnets, prepare to be amazed at the Scottish blood flowing in the most iconic Americana. The dollar sign, baseball and television all have Scottish roots; the first man on the moon was the son of a Scotsman and Uncle Sam himself came from Greenock.

There is no refuting Wilson’s thesis but it’s difficult to read such gung-ho patriotism. “I wish to avoid the impression of ‘wha’s like us’ chest-thumping,” he writes, but what remains is a dilute, pedestrian Nationalism disguised as scholarship. It’s interesting to read about Conan Doyle and Harry Lauder – but only if you don’t know anything about them already. The book has charm and it’s nicely accessible but some of the entries are tenuous and one might mention a few omissions. Perhaps this is too cynical: the book is innocuous and amiable and will be enjoyed by dads across the nation