Thoughts: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I don’t remember much about the film of this one, which I must have seen in 2017, but I remember enjoying it, or at least being quite enthusiastic about the idea of reading the book it was based on.

Well. It was certainly an experience.

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Electric cargo trike review (Babboe Curve Mountain)

Like a lot of people, the pandemic has got me thinking about how I get around. Because we live in the middle of Frankfurt, a car never made sense for us, so we did everything either or foot or by tram and train. That worked well enough for us, but it always meant there were some limitations. Carrying large, heavy objects like crates of drinks or furniture was difficult, and we were limited by the places public transport can reach. What we needed was something that could get to any location in the city and carry a full load of shopping. So, we got a cargo trike.

I’ve now had the trike for a few weeks and racked up around 250 km. Some people have asked me how it is to ride, so here are my thoughts. I’ve split it into the technical stuff and the actual ride experience – if you just want to know how the bike handles, click here to skip the statistics.

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Thoughts: Live By Night, by Dennis Lehane

After The Exorcist, my TBR decided I was in need of a good gangster romp. And boy, was I!

The main thing about Live By Night is that it’s cool in every way you want a gangster novel to be cool. The protagonist, Joe Coughlin, is clever but small fry (for a lot of the book, anyway). He’s unromantic, but decent. He gains a wider understanding of the effects on society of the bootlegging business, and American foreign policy in the 20s and 30s than you might expect from a gangster novel, and deals with it the same way as most of the rest of us deal with our own equivalent knowledge; by making the stopgap amends that he can, and thinking about it from time to time while he continues living as he did before.

There is a lot of what AO3 would call “period-typical racism”, so if you’re not in the mood for an awful lot of racial slurs, some (possibly?) dated and some very much not, then take that into account.

That said, there is a pretty satisfying gangsters vs KKK sequence.

Some of Joe’s ideas on foreign policy and how things are going to go, especially re: Cuba, are interesting, and his experiences in Ybor (heavily immigrant part of Tampa in Florida for the information of The Rest Of Us) are quite, I don’t know, humanist? But at the end of the day, period-typical racism.

I was surprised to see that this was the second book in a series, especially when we follow Joe Coughlin from his very early twenties throughout what must surely be the most eventful years of his life (I mean, for his sake as much as anyone’s) but on looking further into it, the first book follows one of his brothers and the third book is about a couple of weeks later in Joe’s life (unluckily for him, eventful ones!). Maybe I’ll sniff them out at some point.

The writing’s just lovely. The rhythms of the dialogue, from Boston to Tampa, are spot on. And Lehane is a storyteller with confidence – you know the type, or at least I hope you do. The type where you start reading, and immediately stop worrying about whether you’re going to enjoy yourself.

If this is a short post, then blame the heat, not the book. Frankfurt’s been heating up again and it’s been all I can do to sprawl out in front of the fan and give thanks, as I read, that I wasn’t in Florida with Joe. But now it’s over… I’m a little bit sad to leave him there and come back here.

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Thoughts: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

I have seen the film of The Exorcist, in the way that a lot of almost-teenage girls did – from behind a sofa.

I was kind of dreading this one.

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Thoughts: Jackself, by Jacob Polley

I finished this book a little while ago, but honestly it’s been too hot to think about anything in an intelligent way until around now. And I can’t vouch much for now.

It doesn’t help that this is a book of poetry, and I’m very nervous of saying too much about poetry on a good day, because I don’t read much of it. I feel like I lack a lot of the tools to judge it beyond the immediate and very subjective, with nothing to back my opinions up and no wider context to hang them on, and so have very little of interest to say.

So what’s the immediate?

I knew that Jackself was a sort of poetic autobiography, and that it drew on the various Jacks of nursery rhymes and folklore, but I was still not quite prepared for what this was. The poems were standalone, sort of unmoored in time, but they also referred to each other, and followed on. There was a chronology to it, like a story told in vignettes, and rather than a concrete timeline of events, what I was left with was a sense-impression, caged in a period of time, that I could follow, almost touch. Growing up an odd boy in a Lake District village. Something restless and ill-fitting, something old and dark, something rough and ordinary about it all.

I saw that one of the judges for the T. S. Eliot prize described it as “moving”, as well, which hadn’t been part of my little parcel of expectations when I picked it up, but is absolutely in line with my experience. It was moving, surprisingly so. I don’t think I appreciated just how incredibly well done it was until I started gathering together my impressions of it. I enjoyed it a lot, and when I got to the end and there were no more poems, I had a distinct moment of No, where’s the rest?? which is always a good sign for a book (but always a bit sad for me).

Strange and quite wonderful.

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Thoughts: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

This should give you an idea of how far behind I am.

I almost felt a bit bad reading this one now, because the triumph of the story of how black female mathematicians were part of history all along actually felt so dissonant to the current unrest in the US. But you know what? It was a great time to read it.

A sort of disclaimer! Pre-emptively, I am not here for “if you’re not x you haven’t been paying attention” on this. I am not American. I am from a different continent and have lived in different countries which have just as much history and politics to them, and I’m not comfortable apologising for not being aware of some very detailed history from before I was born in a different country. I’m just not, and I don’t like the parts of the internet that have begun to tend towards blaming people for becoming aware of something later than other people, but that’s by the by. Everyone has to learn things. Don’t shit on strangers for not doing so to your personal timetable.

Obviously there’s no spoilering history, but let’s snip for length.

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Thoughts: Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

Another top notch non-fiction recommendation by the kind soul who recommended Your Inner Fish, Why The West Rules – For Now, and The Mismeasure of Man, and she continues to hit it out of the park, as the Yanks would say.

This is a book I picked up as research for a short story, which feels intensely embarrassing to say, as I am a hack who has no place writing the kinds of stories that need researching, but there it is, so let’s never speak of it again.

Snip for length and convenience.

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Thoughts: Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack

As 2017 started, I decided that I clearly wasn’t adding enough books to my TBR and added one more condition to the existing conditions of “one book by writers whose obituaries you come across when timewasting in the Guardian” and “books whose adaptations you see in other media”; namely, “books which win prizes”. I felt like I was missing out by reading all these reports on book prizes but not reading the actual books themselves. Solar Bones is the first one of those to have been put on the list, and now, in 2020, I have finally got there. Yay!

And yes, this prizewinning book is indeed good.

Before I get into it, I’m going to say I spoilered myself when I was 60% through by idiotically skimming Goodreads reviews. And I don’t usually mind spoilers, but this time it did affect the experience a bit. As soon as I spoilered myself I wondered what it would have been like to come to it organically as I read or all at once when the book revealed itself. Don’t be like me. If you enjoy those books that are also whole lives, then keep yourself pure and give this one a go.

Last spoiler warning!

Spoilerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs

Before I get into the spoilers, though, why not start with The Gimmick (which is a mean way of putting it), or The Eye-Catching Thing about this book, which is the fact that it’s one giant book-length sentence. I don’t know if I’m of an age where such things no longer impress me in themselves, or if I was just a bit grumpy, but I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of a book-length sentence – if nothing else, all my reading is done on commutes and in the spaces between work and errands and hobbies and whatnot, and where are you supposed to pause to go to bed if there aren’t any sentence breaks, let alone chapters?

I kept remembering that quote by Hitchcock: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Bladders are less relevant to books, but there’s still some relationship with human physicality or biology there, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t the easiest book to put down or pick up again. I did appreciate that he put paragraphs in though! Not just because it made it easier to read, but it added almost a sense of poetry to the prose, a sort of enjambment angle that was really quite lovely.

I do have to say though, that like a lot of Longest Sentences, it… wasn’t technically a single sentence. It just lacked full stops. I saw a Goodreads commenter peeved about the lack of punctuation in dialogue in particular, which I agree was the most egregious trick (some of those really were complete and finished sentences) but it didn’t offend me or anything. I was happy enough to accept it as a style choice by that point. It would have been odder to have put punctuation in them given the rest of it.

Solar Bones is the story of Marcus Conway’s life, as retold through Marcus Conway’s zigzagging thoughts as he sits at his kitchen table, and I must admit that though I enjoyed being in Marcus’s head, I spent some time wondering what the book was saying, and whether it had just been beloved for its style and format. Well. If I hadn’t gone and bliddy spoilered myself I would have found out, wouldn’t I?

Last spoiler warning!

As I knew I wanted to read the book because it was a prizewinner (and from three and a half years ago so it wasn’t as though I remembered much beyond “it is a single sentence”) I didn’t bother reading the blurb or anything when buying it. So when I was faffing around on Goodreads and saw the description contained “blah blah ghostly visits on All Soul’s and this is the story of one such visitation blah blah” I went “…oh.” When I read the irritated review about the sentence thing and got to the bit about “the controversy over the back of the book giving away that Marcus is dead when you only find it out on the last page” I went “Oh.”

I had started to wonder about something by this point, every now and then when we were brought back to him sitting at the kitchen table, and he’s getting more and more restless and is more and more convinced his family will never come by here again I suspected something, but not that he was the ghost.

Well, I’ll never know whether I’d have sussed it now, and I have no one to blame but myself.

As I said, I liked being in Marcus’s head. I have a soft spot for that kind of character, who works with his hands or with solid things, who has the integrity not to sign his name to things that aren’t up to his standards and is immune to the worst kind of politics, baffled but supportive of his children as they charge off in directions totally alien to him. I liked the moments when he got caught up in sudden wonder, and the way he talked about Mairead and his father. I liked the look at 21st century Ireland too, so often eclipsed by its past (not meant in an “Ireland’s past is unimportant” way, but in an “Ireland continues to exist in this the year of our lord 2020” way).

And speaking of the Ireland part, the whole epidemic thing read particularly interestingly in a way I guarantee it didn’t when it first came out. It retained its original power as a sign of a huge problem that won’t go away, and that no one will solve because no one knows who’s to blame because everybody’s to blame, and the knotty complexity of its causes between urban/rural, big/small in a way that I think resonates depressingly throughout the whole Northwest European Archipelago. But it also hit very close to home in a less metaphorical way, these sudden emergency conditions, the politicisation of reality, the abstract treatment of things by faraway speakers which are affecting real people who are much closer to us in visceral ways.

The more I think about it, the more I like it, and I liked it pretty well as I was reading it.

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Thoughts: G, by John Berger

I have finally made it into the 2017 part of my TBR list! Yay!

So this was kind of a weird one. All the reviews I saw on Goodreads were either very highly rated or very low rated, but my own experience was decidedly… middling.

Partly I couldn’t quite get into the story, partly I think I was missing some background context (Italian history in the late nineteenth century, the Don Juan story in its various forms…), just a variety of little things that stopped me loving it.

Usual spoiler warnings ahead.

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Thoughts: Postcards from the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

If you aren’t sick of me saying “Wow, this book everyone says is great turns out to be great!” then you are in luck!

I always approach novels by people whose names I know from other spheres with some trepidation, but I’d seen it around on people’s Goodreads, and it finally went on the list, and I had a fantastic time, honestly. Probably not much in the way of spoilers, but you should still go and read it for yourself.

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