Sunday, 7 July 2019

Ruby Reviews 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 bu Paul Auster

A few months ago a friend gifted us a couple of books. She’s not a regular reader and thought she ought to try and be one, so she had bought some Booker Prize shortlisted titles in hardback. It may have been a New Year’s resolution or something, and like so many of those it fizzled out pretty quickly. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster subsequently appeared on our shelf. I was just coming off a strict diet of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, by way of style research (did I mention I have a new Ger Mayes crime novel coming out myself soon?) and thought a bit of highbrow reading was in order, after all of Parker’s killing and mayhem. However, Lincoln in the Bardo defeated me within the first dozen pages. Clever as the delivery method might be in that book, I couldn’t stomach it. So I turned to the huge 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

Inside the front of the hardback jacket cover, 4 3 2 1 lets the reader know what they’re taking on. Archie Ferguson is the MC and the book follows four alternative life paths from 1947 through to the late 1960s. Chapters are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and so on to signify which of the four Fergusons are on call and the initial 1.0 sets the background with the Russian émigré Jewish grandfather, his son Stanley and Ferguson’s mother, Rose. The parental characters also develop different life paths and are a constant feature of the book through flashback and forward. As a reader, I’m not a strong advocate of too much flashback and I dislike foreshadowing, but the author manages to use both techniques without being too invasive. Even when the certain death of some characters is foreshadowed, Auster somehow acquires the reader’s permission to do so. Perhaps that is because, knowing an individual is about to be killed off in life path A, the reader rests assured that the same individual is likely to endure in life path B, C or D. The discomfort of losing a character to which the reader has built an attachment is diminished, as they’re only one part dead.

I had thought it would be difficult to follow the four separate life paths of Ferguson. There were a few times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was in 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I didn’t succumb to the temptation of turning back to previous chapters. Instead, I trusted the author to provide enough clues and hooks to keep me on track, and Auster manages that well. As a reader, it was an enjoyable experience. As an author, I wondered how much technical work had gone into writing the book. Did he write four different 250 page novels? Did he plot all the details and timelines in advance? Were checks made to ensure the reader would intuitively know which of the four life paths were being read?

Paul Auster’s style put me in mind of John Irving, albeit with less acerbic wit. Auster’s coming of age story is threaded through with the emotional and physical rollercoasters that the first quarter-century of a life might contain. Love, abuse, disaster, romance, tragedy, sex, crime, friendship, racism, violence, success, failure, in all their shapes and colours. With Irving, the MC’s life story sometimes takes a route other than that which the reader might have preferred. With Auster’s 4 3 2 1 there is a choice of routes. The reader isn’t trapped in lengthy observation of a single trajectory. I could have eaten a little more humour than 4 3 2 1 contained, but that’s just a matter of taste. The twist in the tail, however, is quite deliciously logical.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Ruby reviews Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

It would take a special kind of secluded living not to know that Donald Trump has been in the role of President of the United States of America since January 2017. He’s the media’s villain and the media’s darling, depending upon the media. Notoriety is generally more newsworthy than being a hero and so most of the Trump stories we hear in Europe are disparaging. But where does the truth lie?

News media tend to have a bias. If your personal tendency is right-wing then you are likely to follow certain news sources that reinforce your world view. If you’re more left-wing then another list of media outlets will be more to your taste. Sometimes people sample the news via channels they don’t respect or believe, just to get a bit of spice thrown into the mix. Social media can broaden people’s news church but it can also narrow it. Facebook, in particular, will serve up newsfeeds from individuals’ newsfeeds and pages that are matched by algorithms to your own friends list, pages you have visited etc. The risk is that people end up preaching to the choir, or end up in the choir being preached to, and only one perspective gets presented. These days a lot of folk get their news from social media and believe what they see. The problem is this may sometimes be – yes, a phrase that is synonymous with the Trump presidency – fake news.
Social media is full of fake news these days. Was that always the case? It seems I can’t remember when it wasn’t. As an author, I don’t take a strong political or idealistic stance (perhaps sometimes I should). I have a wide circle of facebook friends and this gives me a broad perspective when it comes to viewpoints, both politically and geographically. I read stuff that makes me groan, other things that make me laugh, and content that makes me think further, wondering if it’s fake. Rarely do I unfriend, unfollow or block someone on social media. Also I don’t engage in political or idealistic online conversation. (I lurk and throw in the occasional one-liner with hopefully comic effect. But I take it all in, I see human nature in the raw and absorb what I see to help fuel my writer’s imagination.) When I see something outrageous, I fact check. Almost invariably, regardless of the viewpoint, it’s either fake news, taken out of context or only partially true. 

In the run up to Trump’s election, and since his inauguration, fake political news has been crashing through social media like a hailstorm. It’s bewildering. As a larger-than-life character, Donald Trump is a soft target for cheap ridicule. Mocking him for his creative hairstyle or those strangely small hands is just being mean. His oratory style and tendency towards hyperbole are not what a lot of people typically expect from a POTUS, but he doesn’t claim or want to be a typical POTUS. He wants to shake things up. According to The Guardian UK newspaper, he had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since taking office, sometimes more than 100 in one day. How could this possibly be the case? Surely a Head of State has to be taken at his/her word and any untruths would be a cause for grave concern? 

The peculiarity of the Trump presidency is perplexing to us Europeans, over in these staid old countries where one bold-faced lie can bring down a leader or even a government. Just 12 hours ago, Trump tweeted a quote from One America News - “There’s not one shred of evidence that President Trump has done anything wrong.” How did the world become a place where the president of a huge and powerful nation feels he needs to share those words? 24 hours ago Trump tweeted Despite the most hostile and corrupt media in the history of American politics, the Trump Administration has accomplished more in its first two years than any other Administration. A quick Google search on this topic produced an interesting article from the UK’s BBC, which suggests that there were some areas where the Trump administration has exceeded the results of previous ones. However, rate of turnover amongst senior level advisors and length of government shutdown due to funding are probably not the medals he’s looking for. But hey, we know he doesn’t really believe what he himself is saying, except in the moment. He’s just trumpet blowing, like the childhood rhyme of dominance – I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.

So what is the truth? What’s going on? Normally I would raise my hands (in Trump fashion) and say look, America is a very different society to ours. All countries have their problems, often depending on complex historical factors. In little old Ireland, where I live as an ex-pat Brit, we have very few deaths due to firearms, there isn’t an opioid crisis and racism is more subtle than skin tone. How can we begin to understand life across the pond? Leave the USA alone. If they want Trump (and the majority of voters, by whatever rules in play, must have chosen his team) then let us just enjoy the spectacle and see what results. But then, while trying to use up a spare half hour waiting for a train in Dublin’s Heuston Station, I stumbled over a copy of Fire and Fury. I rarely read non-fiction but something made me pick it up. Perhaps reading this would make things clearer?

The surprising thing about Fire and Fury was that there was nothing surprising in it, when it came to a catalogue of White House events. From stories of the Trump campaign trail, the rousing calls of the candidate at mega-rallies, the tumultuous early days of the presidency, and the myriad well-heeled individuals who made cameo White House appearances before being sacked or resigning – everything was familiar. When Wolff quoted such a person or an anonymous source as having said or done something, I knew it already. This wasn’t because I was late to the party – I had bought the paperback a year after the hardback was first released. It was because the world, through global media, had lived through all this. 

Wolff tells a story of a latter-day Game of Thrones, with the houses of Trump, Bannon and Priebus battling for ascendancy. GoT with a twist, because none of the main cast has any real gladiatorial experience in the Washington colosseum. White Walkers, Wildlings, the Night’s Watch, noble dynasties, Viking types, warrior queens, mean-looking lads on horses, all waving their weapons and circling each other, with one eye on the media scavengers who sniff for carrion. The chaos proves too much for some would-be warriors who leave the field after their first blood wounds. New heroes then arise, only to have their skulls ceremoniously crushed by dominant champions. The Princess summons her dragon to breathe fire upon the weakened in-house foes, but we know the dragon will eventually take his own flight. Once I finished the book, I had to google the characters’ real-life names and find out what happened in the sequel. Sure enough, the outsider victors of the Wolff story have all since succumbed to their fate, Trump blood and marriage being the only certain protection against treachery and spells.

Critics have said that Wolff played with the facts on occasion. One reviewer criticised him for using the device of unreliable narrator (although I’m not sure that review really properly explained the method) but surely that’s the whole point of the story. Everyone in the organisation has a different world view, and many live in their own reality. Some (albeit not many) see themselves as following their great leader. Others endeavour to mollify his excesses. Another plays the role of guru. The big man himself just wants to be loved and plays fast and loose with any material at hand to achieve that end. 

This book has, however, had an unexpected effect upon me. I am no longer surprised or appalled by anything that Donald Trump says or does. If I look at his historical tweets I just say yeah, that’s him, or no, I think someone else wrote that one. Fire and Fury has numbed me to the unfiltered thoughts of the current POTUS. I find myself able to step back and wonder if what he does and says will really have any impact upon my little world. Bearing in mind that the House of Representatives shifted control to the Democrats after the recent mid-terms (which, of course, very often happens during a US presidency), Donald Trump is going to have increasing difficulty implementing his campaign promises. Until next time.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

How to Stay Looking Good, Put on Muscle and Survive the Christmas Hangover

A few simple steps will serve you well over the festive season. You'll look younger, feel stronger and hitt the new year with a running start.

Step 1 - Head to a reasonable clothes outlet (e.g. Next or River Island) and buy a pair of those smart jeans with the stretch fabric. Buy a new top too, something with high cotton content and just a little loose.

Step 2 - Shave that beard. What? You didn't grow the pre-Christmas beard? Didn't you get the memo? Shave the beard down to stubble and keep it that length for the duration. Don't mind about female family member complaints after Christmas kisses - they secretly like the abrasion. Step 2 is optional for the ladies (at a certain angle and in a certain light that upper lip shadow can be very attractive).

Step 3 - Adopt a Christmas and New Year exercise routine. This should be muscle intensive e.g. 3 sets of pushups and 3 sets of squats. Do this every other day with increasing intensity. E.g. 3 sets of 10 squats at the start, working up to 3 sets of 40 by the end with extra weight (a small child on your shoulders or your life partner on your back, for example).

Step 4 - Eat everything that comes near you. How else are you going to gain weight?

Step 5 - Drink everything that comes near you. You're going to need hydration with all that exercise.

Now watch yourself develop. The weight gain should be at least half a stone (7lb). You know this is muscle because your trousers aren't getting tighter (stretch) but your shirt (wash frequently) is getting more snug around the shoulders.

Step 6 - Decrease your intake of turkey and ham as the meat's consumability moves from "probably still okay" to "wouldn't give that to the dog". (Don't throw the remaining ham in the compost bin like last year, when it got stuck to the bottom and didn't come out til Easter. Don't even want to talk about what that was like.)

Step 7 - Gradually change your liquid intake to less carbs. The cans of beer that you used to hydrate yourself in between Christmas day meals should be changed to wine. Start with red, migrate to rosé and white, then move on to the gin & tonic. Over the course of two weeks, not all in one day. Gin & tonic is practically a health drink. Put fruit and vegetables in it. Make sure your Christmas presents included a breathalyser. Never, Ever drink and drive.

You should reach your destination in good shape (mentally) with a solid muscle gain (mentally) and having had a good time. Reality will hit in due course but we'll deal with that when we come to it.
You're welcome.

This blog post is written in the spirit of this is how it turned out so I'll pretend that was my intention from the start.