Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Voodoo Histories by David AaronovitchWinner of the inaugural One Hundred Pages prize for the best line in non-fiction: “…given the extreme bellicosity of the original Hitler.”

There are a lot of books out there concerned with conspiracy theories – far more propagating them (they are like weeds spreading) than debunking them, of course, but then, it’s far more fun to think you’re in on the truth of a vast conspiracy, than to accept that you don’t know much more than the next person in what is a chaotic and meaningless world.

“Most of the conspiracy theorists in Aaronovitch’s account are dysfunctional fantasists and hucksters, driven by “glory, money, stupidity”. Their obsession with a hidden meaning in events reflects repressed fear that their lives have no meaning. They are made anxious by the untidiness of truth, preferring to believe in a brilliantly malevolent government than in a disorganised, neglectful one. David Aaronovitch, by contrast, is not afraid to stare the truth in the face and call it boring. And while that probably makes Voodoo Histories a necessary book, it doesn’t always make it a compelling one.”


Some ideas have more appeal than others, hence their traction. But this doesn’t mean that they’re right. More often than not, the appeal of an idea is in inverse proportion to its veracity. Though why the idea that Princess Diana was murdered by her father-in-law and a few others in a nefarious plot is necessarily appealing defies easy explanation and is itself the subject of this book.

 Aaronovitch only gets to the nub of this problem in the last chapter. But it is a very interesting and insightful journey though the gamut of conspiracy theories, most of which have long been forgotten about once they went out of fashion. So a necessary journey for the reader to take, I would say. Indeed that conspiracy theories go into and out of fashion is itself evidence of how precarious the link is between these theories and any conception of truth.

The most nefarious of all of the conspiracy theories mentioned, on my reading of this book, is the “birther conspiracy theory” – how the notion that Obama wasn’t born in the USA – a notion never really tenable in itself – was used by the right wing there is a warning to us all: the most effective way to discredit someone isn’t by digging up the truth, but by inventing lies.

Aaronovitch is one of the great opinion writers of today and this is an important work and well worth reading.

Mr A


Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel review – criminally good* 

*says The Guardian

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel

“…one of those “where have you been all my life?” books.”

Yes, this I’d agree with. These are some of the best short stories I’ve read.

“Set roughly 100 years ago, these tales tell of the lives of the people of the Ukrainian port – a free port for half the previous century, and with a strongly lingering sense of that freedom. Odessa is run by gangsters, and, interestingly, they are Jewish gangsters, Jews making up the second most populous demographic of the town. (By 1938, they were the most populous demographic.) As a child growing up among these people, Babel heard all the stories about them; and, let’s face it, a story with gangsters in it may be a litany of reprehensible events, but it is not going to be dull.

“So we get characters such as Lyubka the Cossack, who ignores her newborn baby in order to run her business empire; Tartakovsky, known as “Yid-and-a-half” or “Nine Shakedowns”, “on account of the fact that no single Jew could contain the guts and the gelt that Tartakovsky contained”; and, greatest of all, Benya Krik, the King, who shakes down Tartakovsky, and regards the police with amused contempt. “Let’s talk about Benya Krik,” says the narrator at the beginning of “How It Was Done in Odessa”. “Let’s talk about his lightning-quick rise and his terrible end.” And we’re hooked.”

These stories do almost explode with energy.

“The book is divided into two sections, the first being about the gangsters (whose capacity for violence and gift for retribution will make you whistle in admiration), the second about Babel’s childhood. “The Story of My Dovecote” is probably the most famous one, in which the 10-year-old Babel saves up for “a pair of cherry-red doves with tattered colourful tails and a pair of crested ones”, but then, at the market, gets caught up in a pogrom. This is described almost elliptically, a scene of utter confusion – as it would seem to a child of 10, and recollected some 20 years later.”

In my opinion it is in the stories of childhood that Babel’s art as a short story writer is most clearly in evidence – the writing is supremely crafted, turns of phrase just beautiful, and control of the narrative masterful.

“Babel was shot by firing squad in the Lubyanka, in 1940. His immense popularity in Russia did not save him; and besides, it had been most unwise of him to conduct a long-standing affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov.

“Babel’s work was banned and his name removed from literary encyclopedias, but he was rehabilitated by Khrushchev, and Russians could read again of the cargoes unpacked by his merchants, “cigars and delicate silks, cocaine and metal files, loose-leaf tobacco from the state of Virginia and black wine purchased on the isle of Chios.”


No. not criminally good – Babel, unlike his heroes, doesn’t get away with anything. He gives the reader some near perfect stories, better than Joyce’s childhood stories in Dubliners. As good as Chekov or Mansfield. 

A great book.

Mr A


H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald“In her breathtaking new book, “H Is for Hawk,” winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.”


“It is this unique, lyrical depiction of the relationship between human and wild falcon that led the judges of this year’s Samuel Johnson prize to name Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk, the winner of the most prestigious accolade in nonfiction.


Hmmmmm. It just goes to show. Reading is a very subjective thing.

This being non-ficiton is important: it feels to me that this is a burden on the text that Macdonald doesn’t deal with at all well. She tries ever so hard to squeeze meaning out of things that actually do happen that she chokes any meaning they might have had for her in the first place. How to make sense of the death of your father? Squeeze some meaning out of every memory and chance happening. How to make sense out of the work and life of the very odd T H White? Squeeze some meaning out of what are some very juicy titbits that are in the public domain: you wouldn’t think the bizarre details of this bizarre man’s life would require quite such an effort. And it’s the same with the training of the hawk, the landscapes though which she walks, and the varous enconters she has with bemused strangers: squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. God, is Macdonald’s life so devoid of meaning? No. it’s full to bursting with it. So what gives?

Well, this did win the highest accolade for non-fiction writing. But to me it read like a badly put together novel. But for all that Macdonald can write beautifully. But as soon as she’s off she’s as soon bogged down in the remorseless search for the meaning of things. Of dreams even! Out come the favourite tools of amateur philosophers and pop psychologists. She gives Freud a good go. And a few others. And for a very well read and probably excellent scholar, she always has recourse to the learning of millennia, which she doesn’t forego: my God, she doesn’t spare us.

So why did this work win the most prestigious prize for non-fiction in 2015?

“Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey – an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it’s a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It’s a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.”


There’s a lot of truth in the praise of this book. It’s worth reading. It’s just a little bogged down in tedious this-means-this and that-means-that every second page or so.

But there are more few good bits than bad.

Mr A




Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

barthDonald Barthelme’s Fiction?

Failing “to engage with the world or the human condition, eschewing emotional depth in favour of tail-chasing cleverness”?

“Ludic, bizarre and partially opaque”?

“Too often dismissed as just another tricksy postmodernist, his stories pair their formal games with a powerful engagement with real life and an unforgettable wit.”

Donald-Barthelme-in-1964-002“It was in my late teens that I fell for Donald Barthelme. No passing adolescent fancy this, but a palpitating obsession of the first water. In his essay The Beards, Jonathan Lethem writes of Talking Heads that “[at] the peak, in 1980 or 1981, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head”. In 1993 I felt much the same way about Forty Stories, the first Barthelme collection I owned.

“That book and its predecessor Sixty Stories were Barthelme’s self-selected “best-ofs”, their contents culled from nine story collections and work first published in magazines such as the New Yorker and Esquire. His fiction resulted in more letters of complaint being sent to the former publication than any other writer, a predictable result of its audacity. His postmodernist aesthetic, however, is not of the sort that revels in being problematic for its own sake. “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult,” he wrote in his 1987 essay Not-Knowing, ‘but because it wishes to be art.”

“He is now more referenced than read, but at the time of his death from throat cancer in 1989 Barthelme was, alongside Raymond Carver, the most emulated short story writer in America. The vast majority of his work, unlike that of many of his formally adventurous contemporaries, remains fresh, despite its reputation having been unfairly tarnished by underachieving copyists.

“Barthelme’s literary antecedents were Stéphane Mallarmé, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Beckett and the surrealists, although it’s true to say that he was equally influenced by the visual arts. He often cited collage as the central artistic principle of the last century and many of his stories work in just such a way, mashing historical and artistic allusions into pop-cultural references and voices that shift between the demotic, the bureaucratic and the formal. Place and time are often elastic or paradoxical. Stories such as City Life (1970) and Will You Tell Me? (1964) are not untypical in having something of the quality of a film watched in fast forward, the familiar connective tissue of plot and commentary almost entirely jettisoned. Elsewhere, in Cortés and Montezuma we find accurate period detail coexisting with detectives and limousines. These last are “only a way of making you see chariots or palanquins”, said Barthelme, the comment indicative of the way in which his playfulness is rarely that alone.

“Perhaps the most immediately appealing aspect of Barthelme’s craft, other than what George Saunders calls “the devastating adroitness of his language“, is his supreme talent for comedy. This subsists even in his angriest stories, such as The Rise of Capitalism (1972). Despite noting that his urge to crack jokes was something he developed greater control over as he grew in experience, the high value he placed on humour is indicated by an attack he made on nouveau roman writers in his 1964 essay After Joyce. “It is as if French novelists do not know how to play,” he writes, concluding that this inability “is the result of a lack of seriousness”.

“That judgment, as unexpected as it is perspicacious, is typical of Barthelme, whose work repels certain accusations habitually levelled at postmodernism: that it fails to engage with the world or the human condition, eschewing emotional depth in favour of tail-chasing cleverness. One need only read The Indian Uprising (1968), one of his most famous stories, to be disabused of this notion. Ludic, bizarre and partially opaque as it may be, its presiding atmosphere is nevertheless such that it would surprise few readers to learn that it was written at the height of the Vietnam war. Equally, its description of the waterboarding of an enemy combatant shows its concerns can hardly be said to lie solely with events of the past.

There’s nothing more rewarding than a fresh set of problems,” Barthelme commented in a 1987 interview. He both celebrated and despaired of them, and his work essentially represents an ongoing investigation into problematic relationships – between the conflicting sides of the self; men and women; races and societies; competing ideologies; nature and technology; high and low culture; language and meaning – and a sustained attempt to carry out this investigation in an original, meaningful way.

“You can’t do Beckett all over again, any more than you can do Joyce again,” he told Larry McCaffery in 1980. His work clearly bears the influence of both, and of the Eliot of The Waste Land (particularly in the repeated “Fragments are the only forms I trust” refrain of 1968’s See The Moon?), but could never be mistaken for theirs. As with all great artists his influences represented territories to strike out from, not havens in which to settle.”


A really good review from Chris Power in The Guardian in 2009.

Stories written from the sixties to the late seventies, they make you wonder what was going on at that time in literature, both here and in America. You have to check your chronology. Who was writing what in England at this time? Iris Murdoch was writing her best stuff. Calvino in Italy. For America this is more Thomas Pynchon than Updike or Bellow. This is the fiction of the twentieth century that continued to challenge what fiction was for, what it could be, how it could (and couldn’t) work. It seems like these are battles than have simply fizzled out these days. David Foster-Wallace and a few others maybe continuing the fight up until the start of this century.

But do the stories stand on their own? Do they work? If they are for something, do they do it? do they do it well?

It seems each short story of Barthelme’s is asking he question: what is the short story, what is fiction generally, for. And the better ones answer the question too. The less good ones maybe give up, or maybe refuse to answer that question, but they leave the feeling in the reader that they are due another read. There is something worthwhile and enjoyable about everything that Barthelme writes. He’s the master of something. But of what?

Mr A

Jackself by Jacob Polley

Jackself-coverA fascinating talk from Jacob Polley in Manchester’s Portico Library this morning. His T S Eliot Prize winning collection Jackself was published in 2016 and he came to talk primarily about that collection, but also his approach to poetry, how poetry is read and enjoyed, and what poetry is for.

As well as being inspired for this collection specifically by G.M. Hopkins – a quotation from whom is the collection’s epigraph, Polley also spoke of his earlier inspirations, particualry those texts he studied at school, from Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen and Ted Hughes, as well as going on to find what texts he could, and coming across the likes of Ginsburg and Wallace Stephen, one of whom’s poems particularly inspired him as a young man.

The Snow Man 

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,


Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

By Wallace Stephens

Polley spoke on the matter of what poems “mean” as opposed to their significance, and it was in this gap or difference of meaning that a lot of his talk centred: this obsession with “meaning” – or getting to the poem’s or poet’s meaning –  very often undermined the reader’s experience of the poem – seeing it as a puzzle to be solved perhaps (or for the teacher to explain) – what was always more important to Polley was the poem’s significance: words may have a meaning and a significance, and their significance transcends common notions of meaning – involving the word’s shape, sound, collocations etc, the words “feel” – and so it is with poetry. What is more important is the “web of allusiveness” itself – the poet, at least Polley, is less bothered by the reader “getting it”, which is very much his experience of poetry too: enjoying it, or at least appreciating it as an object, rather than racing to “get it”.

“not interested in what [his poems] might mean, but their reality… the artefact”

Speaking on creating poetry himself – of the creative process – Polley spoke of how it can make a mockery of the very motion of the “author’s intentions” – because it is from a “mess” that a poem emerges, not at the end of a clearly directed process – the poet’s intention is merely to create and has to let the poem come, than, say, decide to write a poem about this or that, that must do this or that, or make the reader feel this or that about a particular theme or burning social issue that’s very current. That’s the way to dead poetry, poetry that doesn’t live. Only towards the later stages of the creative process does the poet, from Polley’s experience, consider the reader, at which point the poem is an artefact and it is being created with a vague someone in mind. Polley spoke of “an arc of creation” – starting with the writer and ending with the reader. It starts with the mess of creating, making, drafting, finding, and so on, and only ends with the reading, which is far away from the poem’s inception.

“meanings and derivations are all there humming behind the words”

Poetry concerns the process of constructing “a web of hints and allusions… an historical, live charged thing.”

There was a lot to think about here:

what is poetry for?

How is poetry made?

How does poetry works?

And what were the likes of Coleridge, Rossetti and Heaney about when they sat down to write poetry in their times?

Also a great reading of a great collection of poetry.

Mr A




A Sport and Pastime by James Salter

A Sport and Pastime by James SalterI wasn’t sure about this one. A bit of a Great Gatsby kind of novel. A minor, marginal character narrating the tale of another. But more minor. Mor marginal. Like The Talented Mr Ripley – but where Mr Ripley is just lurking ineptly and pointlessly in the shadows. But not quite a Nelly Dean or Lockwood (both of Wuthering Heights) who show how a such a narrator can work and why they are often needed. So I wasn’t convinced about the novel’s dynamic. I’m still not. I don’t think it works. There are also a few bits of dodgy prose. But. Despite this. despite the novel having something of a hole in it (what’s the narrator doing? Why is he involved? Indeed, how? How is this story even unfolding?), this is a beautiful novel. And the moments of beautiful prose more than make up for the few lapses. And after all the false starts and odd turns, the novel’s central relationship – that between a young American and a local French girl – is deeply moving. So, despite everything, Salter’s novel works. Has hints of the inimitable The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) by Henri Alain-Fournier.

 “…deep in the life we all agree is so neatly to be desired.” 

Mr A