Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Recent Reads - June 2020

The L.A. Diaries by James Brown

Brown is a scree-writer, novelist and brother of the ill-fated Barry Brown who starred in a couple of well received films in the 70s (Daisy Miller for one). This is a memoir of growing up in a family that sowed the seeds for suicide by two of his siblings and a very destructive drug and alcohol problem for the author. Their mother was the problem. It’s relentlessly grim and more than a little sad. Particularly poignant is his damaged relationship with his much admired older brother Barry. It’s a well-written and truly gripping story that frequently leaves you appalled.

Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan

This is pretty decent account of a journey to hell and back – I don’t recall ever reading a more convincing and disgusting account of drug withdrawal. It’s also, incidentally, a history of the grunge scene with dozens of major players making brief appearances. Lanegan (see photo above) was involved in the Seattle music scene in the 80s and 90s – lead singer with the Burning Trees and buddy of Kurt Cobain and other grunge luminaries. After an abusive and criminal childhood he got involved in music and also developed a serious alcohol problem. In an effort to kick his alcohol habit he took up heroin and so inevitably developed an even worse heroin habit. The book is replete with graphic descriptions of the hell he suffered while trying to combine touring and scoring drugs in the various cities he was playing. The amount of detail he gives us suggests creative embellishing but that doesn’t prevent it being an absorbing story. A side line to his drug and alcohol activities was his almost incidental womanizing – accounts of which will not please the feminists. It’s amazing that he escaped from the hole he dug for himself and now has a healthy solo career as a soulful growler – a la Tom Waits. An unlikely heroine in the book is Courtney Love who financed his rehabilitation. A page turner.

The Complete Outsider by Brian Sewell

You probably need to have an interest in art to fully appreciate this book but Sewell’s frankness about his sex live and his scathing comments on the corruption at art auction houses provide plenty of attendant amusement. It’s a relentlessly bitchy read but you get to enjoy his frankness. There’s perhaps too much arcane detail about his expertise in certain obscure areas of the history of art but it clips along at a good pace. He retained his affection for his early mentor Anthony Blount with whom he worked at the Courtauld Institute – sticking with the old spy when others abandoned him. He is very open about the reduced circumstances of his later life but his spirit survived intact. And he was a serious dog lover.

The Best American Essays 2019 – edited by Rebecca Solnit

I used to be a big fan of these Best American series but this edition has been hijacked by an editor with a rabid feminist agenda and an interest in climate change. These are both worthy and valuable causes but sadly the medium has been neglected in favour of the message. I struggled to find even one piece that was entertaining rather than just didactic.


Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford

This is a collection of nine short stories that, as usual with Ford, need to be read slowly and relished bite by bite. Nothing much happens, most of the action takes place in the recollections of the protagonists. Reflections and mature judgements on past relationships full of psychological insight.There’s an elegiac feel, a sense of “so this is where we have ended up”. A subtle pleasure.

W. B. Yeats – A Life by R.F Foster

If you are suffering sleepless nights during the Covid-19 lockdown I have discovered a certain cure. Get hold of Roy Foster’s two-volume biography of W. B. Yeats and within a few pages I guarantee you will be wrapped in the arms of Morpheus. Foster is a historian, and it shows – this is turgid stuff. Yeats lived a long and interesting life, is no doubt a protean genius and our greatest poet, was very engaged politically and was also a very silly man on occasions. Yet Foster manages to make a less than enthralling tale from all this rich material. He lists all the facts, the meetings with political figures and with literary figures, the endless toing and froing between London, Dublin and Sligo, all the dotty mystical stuff: seances, Theosophy, reincarnation etc. – but he fails to add any yeast to the thick dough of these facts.