Archive for August 2018

Book review – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

My last foray into the Pulitzer Prize fiction winner’s list was Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.  This time round I dived into the Pulitzer Pool and came up with Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, emigrating to New Jersey when he was six years of age.  Our protagonist, Oscar Wao, shares the author’s provenance as well as nerdom; Diaz being a lifelong comic book lover.  In fact, Oscar Wao begins with a quote from a 1966 Fantastic Four comic, “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus??” As a comic lover myself, with a special fondness for the Silver Surfer, there aren’t many better ways to start a novel.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oscar is a nerd.  He’s also vastly overweight, falls in love with every girl he sees (but to no avail), and is busy trying to become the next Tolkien.  Moreover, Oscar’s larger than life family believes it is cursed, which may mean that Oscar may never get his shot at true love or even a first kiss!  The novel’s not, however, just about Oscar.  We get to know his wider family through the eyes of his sister, mother, and grandfather, and we learn a lot more about the curse and about life in the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic, as I became aware through reading this novel, was under the rule of a despot, Rafael Trujillo, for over 30 years (1930 to 1961) at which point Trujillo was assassinated.  And it is in this despotism that we find the origin of the curse.

Oscar is reminiscent of other books I’ve read, including Middlesex, Affections, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in that it’s a generational novel and, as in the case of Middlesex, finds us in two very different cultures.  The first part of the novel is focussed on Oscar Wao (Wao being a mispronunciation of Wilde (as in Oscar Wilde)).  Oscar is a wonderful creation and I was annoyed when the novel moved away from him and focussed on other members of his family.  Despite initial reservations, however, I really enjoyed these parts of the book, which gave the novel a richer sense of self.  However, it’s the Oscar parts which I appreciated the most, especially the comic book and Lord of the Rings references interspersed through the book.  Marvel comics fans will appreciate the following line:

‘I tried to give advice [to Oscar Wao], I really did.  Nothing too complicated.  Like, Stop hollering at strange girls on the street, and don’t bring up the Beyonder any more than necessary.  Did he listen?  Of course not!’

As I write this blog, I recall the story and its characters with a certain fondness that I perhaps didn’t have while reading it.  At 340 pages long, it’s not a particularly long book, especially by Pulitzer standards, though there were parts where things started to drag.  Nevertheless, it’s a well written and enjoyable read, which I recommend.

Songs from the Vault

The last edition of SFTV was a full-on metal fest.  We’re going to ramp things down now and enter a more chilled out space.  So, without further ado…

Kicking off this edition is Chromatics with their killer tune, Shadow.  I first heard Chromatics on the Drive soundtrack (2011), a Jan Hammer-sounding track called Tick of the Clock which didn’t nudge me into checking out any more of their music.  I didn’t hear anything of them again until seeing them at the end of an episode of Twin Peaks (season three), where the band is featured playing Shadow in the Roadhouse, Twin Peaks’ destination of choice for live music.  Unlike Tick of the Clock, Shadow features the dream-like vocals of Ruth Radelet.  It’s perfect for Twin Peaks and is one of my favourite tunes of recent years…

Next up is Myth from the 2012 album Bloom by Baltimore duo, Beach House.  I stumbled upon this track on Spotify, though I think I’ve heard their music on various Spotify playlists.  Anyway, there’s a certain vibe to the tune that I appreciate, reminiscent of certain bands from the late 80’s and early 90’s…

I mentioned that Chromatics’ Shadow was one of my favourite tunes of recent years.  Another is Apocalypse by Cigarettes After Sex, from their eponymous 2017 debut album.  I got to see this live a few months ago and hearing this tune was a magic moment.  I find it almost impossible to not press repeat once I’ve heard this tune (and I’ve just done so while writing this post!).  You’ll see why…

I mentioned earlier that Beach House’s Myth was reminiscent of earlier bands.  The specific band I had in mind was the Cocteau Twins.  I didn’t become aware of the Cocteau Twins until 1988 with the release of their fifth album, Blue Bell Knoll.  However, it was their next album. 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, which was a bit more up my street.  The album’s opener, Cherry-coloured funk, bring Liz Fraser’s vocals (perhaps better known these days for Massive Attack’s Teardrop) and Robin Guthrie’s guitars together to create a heady, swirling vapour of sound…

Last up is The Sundays, another one of those bands that I think of when I think about the Cocteau Twins.  Joy, the last track on their debut album, is marked by its simplicity; a simple drum pattern and bass riff, minimalist chords and Harriet Wheeler’s vocal floating over the top.  The band is better known for their single, Here’s Where the Story Ends, but Joy is for me the album’s standout track…

The last few editions of SFTV, including this one, have been themed ones, so I’m going to return to some random selections next time round, so stay tuned!

Book review – The Axeman’s Jazz

I prefer personal recommendations to recommendations from websites like goodreads, etc.  While I’m a user of goodreads it’s hard to arrive at a book I want to read because of the thousands of books reviewed and with so many of them receiving positive reviews.  You really are spoilt for choice.  So when someone recommends something to me personally, I generally check it out.  This has been rewarding, having recently enjoyed Philip Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog.  Most recently The Axeman’s Jazz (2014), by British author Ray Celestin, was recommended to me.

The Axeman’s Jazz is based on the true story of the Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer operating in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919.  The killer, who racked up 12 known victims and was never caught or even identified, wrote a threatening letter to a local newspaper, noting that ‘some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.’  I wasn’t aware that the letter was real when I read it in Axeman’s Jazz, but thinking about it as I type, it only demonstrates the great job Celestin has done at combining fact and fiction.

We find ourselves accompanying three individuals in their separate hunts for the Axeman: Detective Michael Talbot – a pariah in his department for having outed a colleague’s link with the Mob; Luca Andrea – ex-detective and Talbot’s former mentor and just released from prison (yep, he was sent down by Talbot); and Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Ida is accompanied by a trumpet player of the name Lewis Armstrong, who we will all come to know as Louis Armstrong; another blurring of fact and fiction as Armstrong himself was born and raised in New Orleans.  The race is on to catch the Axeman before more people ‘get the axe’ (unless they ‘jazz it out’).

You’ll have guessed that I really enjoyed the novel.  Being a fan of jazz and crime novels, it was always going to be up my street.  I don’t know whether Celestin has been to New Orleans (I haven’t) but he invokes a sense of the place and its inhabitants.  You can almost feel the humidity in the air and sweat running down your back as you’re taken on a journey through the musical, bustling and dangerous streets of downtown New Orleans.

Celestin has also conjured up some great characters, especially in the form of Talbot and Andrea and when it’s quite easy with this kind of book for the characters to be two-dimensional.  The most interesting thing is the way each of our hunters go about their task, unravelling the mystery by pulling at different strands, ultimately revealing different layers of the puzzle (or carpet if I continue with the metaphor!).  At over 400 pages in length, Axeman was a surprisingly swift read and a real page-turner, which I highly recommend.