Inside Story: A Martin Amis Funhouse

Review of Inside Story by Martin Amis, 2020.

An Amis novel is like the weather in May. You never know what to expect. I’ve loved two of his novels (London Fields and Time’s Arrow), liked others, and, on occasion, been completely disappointed.

Amis’s prose is inventive, but it’s often overdone. He’s certainly no Hemingway, limiting adverbs and adjectives. On the contrary, Amis wields them like a boxer, at times jabbing, but usually lining them up for a haymaker. Over the course of five decades, he’s managed to alienate both sides of the reading divide: to literary stuffed shirts, he’s uncouth; to genre buffs, he’s too high-minded. As for Inside Story, I didn’t love it, yet it tickled my funny bone. And my mind. I laughed aloud and, every twenty or so pages, I stopped to think – on everything from Donald Trump to death to beauty to the history of the novel.

Inside Story is a mashup of fictionalized autobiography, literary observations, and sociopolitical opinions. Although subtitled A Novel, the book is largely (and unabashedly) biographical. When Amis is at his best, the narrative has a gravitational pull. His words spin a funhouse of warped mirrors. He regales readers with unique insights, both frivolous and cerebral. Some dismiss Amis as sexist. Others say he’s a bounder; still others, a little shite. I don’t care. I’m loathe to shun books due to their writer’s transgressions. [Having said that, if Putin writes a book, I’ll shred it.]

Alright, back to Inside Story. Martin Amis grew up in a time and place of, let’s say, amorous exuberance (Swinging London, 1960s-70s). If you enter his funhouse, you’ll encounter womanizing, yes, and braggadocio, but also poignancy, self-doubt, and generosity of spirit.

A few excerpts from Inside Story:

On the English language: “Great Britain no longer had an empire – except the empire of words; not the imperial state, just the imperial tongue.”

On the pretzel logic of Biblical hellfire: “It’s not that eternity never ends – it never even begins.”

Describing Donald Trump: “That chicken-hawk, that valorised ignoramus, that titanic vulgarian, dishonest to the ends of his hair.”

Windows into Other Worlds: Gifts for the 2021 Holidays

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are a few gift ideas for the 2021 Holidays.

First, my crime fiction suggestion:

The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, 2021. In The Dark Remains, Rankin completes an unfinished McIlvanney novel after his fellow Scotsman’s death. The story warms up slowly but is bubbling at the end. You can’t go wrong with Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir.

Bewilderment by Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Powers, 2021. Bewilderment is set in the near-future, in a time of ecological collapse. Few adults are willing to confront the collapse. As with most dystopian fiction, there are didactic passages. However, the storyline eclipses them, as does Powers’ vision, which goes beyond the dystopic. A father and his son wrestle with the collapse, hoping that science will offer respite. It doesn’t. But the son’s love does.

Ring by André Alexis, 2021. Ring is a philosophical inquiry as much as a novel, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you have a literary fiction aficionado on your list, especially of 19th century fiction, Ring should please them. They’ll enter a contemplative world set in Toronto, a novel of manners à la Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy.

No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain, 2007. In a previous post, I noted that Kitchen Confidential is my favourite Bourdain book. No Reservations runs a close second. No one would call Bourdain an earth-shattering writer yet he’s pensive as well as informative. This book delivers an entertaining combination of food and travel, two things many people miss these days.

It’s An Amusement Park

Anthony Bourdain had a cult-like following before he died (by suicide, in 2018). His following has not dissipated. He’s still revered by foodies, chefs, raconteurs, and travellers.

To my mind, Bourdain’s first food book is still his best: Kitchen Confidential (2000). It reveals his true self. His later books show a more polished version of the same man. Kitchen Confidential is as noteworthy today as it was two decades ago. In restaurants, the maitre d’, waitstaff, and bartenders are known as the front-of-the-house; the chefs, cooks, and dishwashers inhabit the back-of-the-house. Kitchen Confidential uncorks the back-of-the-house, a fiefdom known for foul language and Gulag-like labour.

Bourdain does not paint a pretty picture, but he does paint a true picture, a picture I happen to know. In my travelling days, I worked in 30+ restaurants, from L.A. to San Diego to Boston, from Perth to London to Toronto, in positions from waiter to line cook to sommelier. The great thing about the restaurant business is that you could land in a city and get a job in a day or two, often with few questions asked; you’d then work your way up the restaurant ladder, to a place with better food and/or money (usually both).

To Bourdain, good food was as much about cooking with honesty and craftmanship as exotic ingredients. He climbed his own ladder, eventually moving beyond kitchens to a career as a TV host and personality. He was a complex man, beloved for many things: his integrity, his enthusiasms, his no-bullshit persona. He was wired to go out on limbs, which fostered an I’ll-eat-anything attitude. To paraphrase Bourdain, your body’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

On Foot to Canterbury and Beyond

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh, 2021. University of Alberta Press. Shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Near the beginning of On Foot to Canterbury, author Ken Haigh poses a timeless question: Why do humans travel? Haigh lets Robert Louis Stevenson answer: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe.”

On Foot to Canterbury is Haigh’s second travel book (following Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan). His new book recounts a walk from Winchester to Canterbury, England, hiking the Pilgrims’ Way. The narrative is immediately engaging; it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. In addition to being a personal journey and a tribute to his father, On Foot to Canterbury is a cultural journey. It delves deeply into England’s past. Haigh deftly weaves together three main threads — travel memoir, English literature, and English history — producing a vibrant tapestry.

With his journey coming to an end, Haigh asks himself why humans go on pilgrimages. In his words, “there is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning you rise and put on the same clothes …. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.” As you walk, you ponder and philosophize. Haigh’s journey took him beyond his physical destination, to a Pilgrims’ Way of the mind and soul. On Foot to Canterbury did the same thing for me. 

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier: A Personal Review

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce, 2019. Dundurn.

Book reviews are supposed to be objective and largely impersonal. Caveat: This one is personal. Tune out if you wish.

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier swirls around Stewart Harbour, Nova Scotia, a fictionalized fishing post close to the real Sheet Harbour on the Eastern Shore, where I grew up. Although I left the shore at 17, I still feel it in my bones.

Some followers of this blog have been asking me to broaden my introduction. At the risk of boring others, here we go. [You can skip ahead to the review. See the last paragraph.] Shortly after leaving the shore, I headed to OZ, taking in the whole Red Continent, after which I kept goin’ down the road. Over a 20-year span, I “paused” to work many times – in Australia again and again, central and western Canada, the USA, England, and New Zealand – to fill my pockets and keep travelling, which I managed to do, seeing every continent except Antarctica. I only stopped because my pack was worn out. Just kidding.

But enough of my wanderlust. Back to the Halifax pier.

It could be that I’m prewired to like this book. Broken man on a Halifax pier happens to be a lyric from one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs: ‘Barrett’s Privateers.’

Now, the book review. To me, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier is an honest feelgood novel, not soppy but uplifting. I won’t recap the plot (I rarely do). Suffice to say, it’s a story of redemption and love. True love often comes across as unbelievable; I felt occasionally at sea as I read, but I didn’t mind. A beguiling woman (smart, sexy, and rich) falls for a completely down-and-out man. I fell for them and the setting. Choyce knows and loves the Eastern Shore. He brings it to life like no author has. For that, I am eternally grateful.