Oops; another month slips by without a post. Life is a busy thing with a toddler. The library has continued to grow and while my to-read list grows I’m getting through some great books. This last month (and a few days) I’ve ploughed through four books of an evening / weekend crashtime – and, in the case of one; lunchtimes. Let’s discuss…. A Christmas gift from my wife (presumably as I’ve often mentioned that nobody says ‘bastard’ or does repressed anger as brilliantly as JC), John Cleese’s autobiography So Anyway was an odd read.
Odd as Cleese is an undoubtedly funny man with a rich and varied career in television and film comedy from Pythons and hoteliers to barristers hankering after Jamie Lee Curtis and even a few straight roles to mix it up a bit. He’s also known for a rather torrid personal life – currently married to his fourth wife – and the odd disagreement / heated debate with other Pythons named Terry Jones. YET wordage is not handed over to any of these but for the passing reference and occasional “so this is where that sketch / idea / character” originated. More ink is spent retrospectively linking events in his life to theories he’d later discover in psychology books than it is on those years so many were sure to have expected coverage of.
But… it’s still a good read. It’s a slow starter – Cleese gives a (sometimes too) thoroughly detailed account of his childhood, school years and early education. We learn how he inexplicably started supported the Australian cricket team as a young child and wonder why we need to know this nugget of information. So Anyway… is as insightful as an auto-bio could be and provides a great arc of a young man finding his calling in comedy – albeit unintentionally at first – and the road that took him to Python. It’s clear that even pre-Python Cleese packed more into these 30 years than many a full-career bio that lines the bookshop shelves. The overwhelming sense though is one of “but what about…”.
One of the things I like about short story collections is the ease of which you can dip in and out, one story at a time as it were, without losing any narrative thread. The problem with short story collections though is that there is no narrative thread, they can jump from tone to tone, first-person to third person narrative and the quality can vary dramatically. You often feel that you’re reading a series of sketches – ideas that will later be fleshed out, trimmed down and slipped in in a minor role or re-worked into a different context in the writer’s novels.
This is certainly the case, in part, with Tales From The Underworld, a collection of short stories by Hans Fallada. While his novels are rich, tightly bound mines of quality, the short stories here are perhaps too obviously touch-points for his later works to be taken at face-value. References to Altholm (setting for A Small Circus) rub shoulders with portrayals of farmworkers suffering at the hands of the government, characters across different stories share names and petty criminals and criminal acts populate a number of these stories. The struggles to get by, scrape an existence and find succour in the arms of loved ones at the most austere of times form the binding theme between those stories gathered here.
That being said, Fallada is a vastly underrated writer and even the lesser of those stories within Tales From The Underworld is only judged so in comparison to his own more-fulfilled writing. A darkly humorous and at times devastatingly moving collection, the short stories here are sequenced chronologically and show Fallada refining his style and themes. The quality tails off toward the end, sadly, but when viewed in line with his own life add up to show an insight into his thinking and writing process.
Reading thrillers has become something of a pleasure again. I’d started to lean into the genre a while ago – then stopped. The same authors I’d started to enjoy started leaving me a bit tired – namely Jeff Abbott and Robert Ludlum. First two Bourne books; brilliant. Third book; awful. Any other Ludlum book I tried was achingly formulaic. First Jeff Abbott books I read – Panic, Fear, Run – cracking stuff. Then he started in with the Sam Capra series and my attention waned as it all became too obvious.
But then lately…. lately I’ve been getting more into it all again. So, first stop: The Ghost by Robert Harris. Many’s the time I’ve been wandering around the supermarket at lunch and have seen a number of cheap books and thought of buying to read during the lunch breaks. This was one of those. I paid just £1 for it having immensely enjoyed Fatherland and found the story behind its publishing intriguing – upon hearing that Tony Blair was to resign, Harris stopped what he was working on in order to write this and get it out ahead of Blair’s own memoirs.
The Ghost is equal parts thriller and political swiping at Blair; a ghost-writer is bought in to help former Prime Minister Adam Lang complete his memoirs following the death of his former assistant. Very much a dig at Labour, its cozying up to the US and involvement in the War on Terror, The Ghost is still a gripping and well written thriller with enough grip and cliff-hanger-shockers to be a bloody good read even without the political overtones – especially as the final reveal is so shocking it surely cannot be true or intended to suggest so. While I’m not about to rush out and start filling the H section of the book shelves with the spines of Mr Harris’ novels, it’s certainly well worth a read – especially at just £1. They ought to include it in the Meal Deal for that value.
So with an appetite for a good thriller and having found the film adaptation of the character to be fine enough for brain-off entertainment I decided it was time to indulge a long-harboured curiosity and meet Jack Reacher.
Being the stickler for order that I can be I wanted to start at the beginning so got hold of The Killing Floor and devoured it in just a couple of days (not bad considering I really only read before falling asleep or at lunch). There’s been so much praise lauded upon Lee Child and his one-man-army Reacher that I won’t attempt to do so. But: bugger me it’s a good book. I will say that I was hooked from the start and will happily and readily get hold of more instalments.
I won’t go the full-hog though, given that the 20th such book is about to be published. I can’t justify the expense or book shelf space. Sorry, Jack.