The Sopranos – just a day but also everything

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Alan Warner’s The Sopranos was given to me by a friend who thought I’d enjoyed it, given our shared taste for the boarding-school novel. The title refers to a group of teenage choristers from the Scottish Catholic girls school of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Bussed into the big city from their sleepy port town for a singing competition, the girls are let loose under strict instructions from the nuns not to do anything that will disgrace the school. No nail varnish is to be worn and the girls are to stay away from the park lest they be raped or murdered.

At first, I was taken aback by the book’s language, which is not only opaque in terms of dialect but also is a tumble of floating thoughts and shifting perspectives. It took a me a little while to find my way with it but before long I was hooked and suddenly the style stopped being jarring and started to feel entirely fitting.

Now I have to hand it to Alan Warner, for a middle aged man he writes a very authentic schoolgirl. The in-some-ways narrow existence of those who are penned in by watchful guardians, the small but vital rebellions of nail varnish and make-up, the getting changed into tarty clothes in toilets, the thirst for disgustingly strong concoctions of alcohol carefully concealed in the appropriate soft drinks bottles, the hunger for gossip – for something, anything to happen.

Warner is mindful of the beauty of teenage girls – their resilience, their reckless bravery, their moral flexibility. He really conjures up that peerless thing – the teenage friendship, its cackles, its warmth, its fierceness and, at the same time, its brittleness. He paints just one day in these girls’ lives and yet he gives you all of them, all those teenage years they are on the brink of breaking out of. Even if you were nothing like one of these wild sopranos, I defy any girl who grew up in the company of other girls to find nothing of herself in this book.

As the girls tear through the city, trouble abounds – the consequences sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic. Each girl is distinct and yet against the outside world they are an impenetrable pack. I hesitate to talk more about the details of their big day out for fear of spoiling the ride for you – better just to lurch from one escapade to the next as they do; better to just soak up the boozy, excitable atmosphere and remember what it was like to be sixteen and untethered from your chain for one brief day – back in those days when one day could feel as long as a lifetime.

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Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking – this book could save your life

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My little brother loaned me Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking the other week, saying it had helped him stop quite easily. I was less hopeful for myself since he’d always been a smoker of the more casual variety and I had been a staunch adherent for the last twelve years.

I’d always said I loved smoking, but I knew I’d have to quit one day or face some scary disease. I suppose I hoped that I’d be one of those people who wake up one day, maybe after a bout of flu, and just don’t fancy smoking any more, but it wasn’t happening and at 27 I was getting a bit scared that it never would.

So I started reading this book on a Saturday, smoking merrily away as I did so. Alan Carr encourages smoking as you read. I think this is one of the book’s best and most effective features. I read right through to the chapter called The Final Cigarette, by which point I was feeling fairly convinced that quitting was the way forward. (Carr warns against my usual half-assed solution of ‘cutting down’ in an extremely persuasive, logical way). Anyway, I wasn’t ready to stop yet so I went back to the beginning and read till I reached the Final Cigarette chapter again, at which point I read on until the finish. I then gathered all my smoking materials together (an almost full pouch of tobacco, a fresh pack of Rizla and every lighter I had in the house), put them in a plastic bag and went out onto the balcony to smoke my final cigarette. Once I’d finished it, I emptied the ashtray into the bag, went out to the rubbish chute and, with a feeling of misgiving, tipped it down into the abyss.

Alan Carr promises his readers a pain-free quitting experience that can, and I quote, ‘even be enjoyable’. His aim is both to teach his readers about the true nature of nicotine addition, free from scare tactics or judgement, and to deal with the psychological aspect: the ‘brainwashing’, as he calls it, that traps smokers into thinking that life without smoking can never be as enjoyable, and that for an indeterminate period after cessation life must be arduous and miserable.

Alan Carr (not the Chatty Man, in case you were wondering!) is not a great literary talent and the book starts off badly with an overlong section boasting about the book’s commercial success and a monotonous list of testimonials from satisfied readers. His style is extremely repetitive – every point is hammered home again and again and the use of capitals for emphasis is a little irritating. That’s the bad stuff about this book.

But none of it really matters, at least not to me as I have not smoked since I threw all my tobacco down the rubbish chute a week ago. Now, I’m aware that this is not that long to go without a cigarette and plenty of my smoking readers will have lasted that long on various failed attempts. But for me, who has never (apart from one day in which I climbed the walls and went to bed at nine in the evening so that I could wake up sooner and smoke again) attempted to do more than cut down it has been a revelation. More than that, it hasn’t been a hideous, arduous week. I’ve had the odd pang but no more than I frequently had during the cutting down process. From the first night, I’ve slept fine, I’ve been cheerful, I’ve been out in the company of my smoking friends and I’ve had a day of real stress – the sort of thing that would normally have had me smoking in a matter of minutes.

Before I read this book, I was told by the people I knew who’d used it that Carr basically tells you everything you already knew but in a way that helps you. That sounds odd but it is basically true. He deals with health, money and the tyranny of addiction and its social implications in a way that is gentle and relentless all at once. By avoiding shock tactics he helps the smoker absorb a message that he/she normally refuses to hear due to fear and/or resentment. He articulates all the crazy, silent, skewed thoughts a smoker has and harpoons every bit of flawed logic you could think of. He breaks down the barriers each smoker puts between him/herself and quitting and delivers just what he promises – a painless route to being a non-smoker.

Can I be assured that I’ll never smoke again? No. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t stack a week against twelve years. Having said that, I can’t see myself starting again. It’s been so shockingly easy to leave it behind since reading this book and I didn’t even feel ready to quit when I started it. Because Carr’s method stops you from feeling that you are making a sacrifice, there’s no misery in the quitting process. Indeed, I’ve been much happier this past week than I was the week before.

Of course, it won’t work for everyone. There is no method on earth that has a 100% success rate, but you only have to look at the Amazon rating to see that it has a whiff of the miraculous about it. Out of 913 reviews, 810 readers gave it five stars. Another 58 gave it four stars. The combined total of one, two and three star reviews is 49. It’s quite hard to argue with that, seeing as Amazon reviewers aren’t always the most generous souls (and you would think that was especially true of those who are in drug withdrawal!).

Anyway, if you are a smoker with an interest in giving up, this book is definitely worth a read. At less than £6 from Amazon it’s around the price of a pack of cigarettes. I’d recommend you also buy a pack of cigarettes that you can chain-smoke as freely as you like while you read the book. Who knows? It could be the last pack you ever want to buy without you even needing to get the flu. So far, it has certainly worked for me.

(Update – I wrote this over nine months ago and never got round to posting it, but I’m still tobacco-free!)

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The Psychopath Test – how would you fare?

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A good friend gave me a copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson for my birthday. I hope he wasn’t trying to tell me anything! The book is the story of journalist Ronson’s foray into the world of psychopaths, as categorised by psychologist Bob Hare’s psychopath checklist.

 

Psychopaths will have a high number of the following personality traits:

Glibness/superficial charm

Grandiose sense of self-worth

Pathological lying

Cunning/manipulative

Lack of remorse or guilt

Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)

Callousness; lack of empathy

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom

Parasitic lifestyle

Poor behavioural control

Lack of realistic long-term goals

Impulsivity

Irresponsibility

Juvenile delinquency

Early behaviour problems

Promiscuous sexual behaviour

Many short-term (marital) relationships

Criminal versatility

 

Ronson sets out to interview people classed as psychopaths (both criminals and high achieving businessmen – seemingly most psychopaths fall into one or other category – make of that what you will). He explores some fascinating and tragic cases and asks some very, very awkward questions.

 

On the one hand, I found Ronson slightly annoying – on the other hand I was impressed by his unflinching truthfulness. He is not afraid of looking like an idiot either in front of his interviewees or in front of his readers. He admits to getting a bit carried away with his own amateur psychopath spotting and he happily rubs eminent psychologists and unnerving psychopaths up the wrong way. He certainly earns a lot of glares throughout the course of this book.

 

Then again, I suppose this is how we should want our journalists to be. Ronson is fearless (telling a clearly unhinged cross-dressing former spy to ‘fuck off’), relentless, shameless (or unabashed about being wrong – as opposed to just being an unconscionable creep) and ultimately fascinated by people.

 

The best thing about The Psychopath Test is that it takes a fairly clinical checklist and considers the human implications of it. Ronson delves into the desperately sad and unjust tale of the wrongly accused Colin Stagg (who was thought to have killed Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common), follows is-he-isn’t-he-a-psychopath corporate hardass Al Dunlap around and meets the charming death squad leader Emmanuel Constant. Over the course of the book, he gives as much consideration to the problem of over-diagnosing as he does to the havoc psychopaths wreak in the world, which, really, seems only fair.

 

If you’re interested in psychopathy, the prison system, psychology or just human nature and its extremes this is a fascinating, thought-provoking and gripping read.

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Heft – a homage to loneliness

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I got a copy of Heft by chance in a Twitter competition run by Windmill Books. And it’s lucky I did, because the book is fantastic, a great example of why good literature doesn’t need fancy words and complex themes to grip a reader. Heft is the story of the grossly obese Arthur Opp, a former professor who hasn’t left his house for many years, and Kel Keller, a popular, promising baseball star whose mother, Charlene Turner, once knew Arthur. Though Arthur and Charlene were penpals for many years, Arthur hasn’t received a letter for a long time when Charlene rings out of the blue and asks if Arthur would consider tutoring her son.

Suddenly, a crack of light enters Arthur’s gloomy and solitary existence. He hopes to rekindle his relationship with Charlene and fantasises that her son too might eventually become part of his life. So begins a new chapter in Arthur’s life, and in Kel’s, but not in a way that either of them could ever have imagined. Heft is about relationships – our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with the wider world and our relationships with those who we love and who love us, however imperfectly.

When I began this book, I was suffering from reader’s fatigue. I’d read a lot of demanding books recently and was feeling generally a bit out of sorts. I wanted something soothing, comforting, but still gripping. I picked up a couple of books on my ‘to be read’ shelf and read a page or so before putting them back, feeling ungripped and disheartened. Where is the book I am seeking? Ah, here it is. Thanks Liz Moore.

Liz Moore, author of The Words of Every Song, is a very natural writer – her characters are effortlessly loveable and their lives have an inescapable authenticity. Arthur Opp is noble, vulnerable and eloquent. Kel is mature before his time and yet poignantly childlike. Charlene, the woman who threads their two lives together, is exasperating, yet it is hard not to care for her, to want her to do better, to want to shake her and put her on the right track.

So much of the book is about wasted opportunities, wasted time and the potentially corrosive effect of painful memories. It seems to lament the way that previous mistakes make people hesitant, cowardly and unsure. It celebrates togetherness and the joy of having love in your life, but it never mocks or turns its nose up at those who are alone and unhappy. In fact, it celebrates them.

Liz Moore digs beneath the surface of the obese recluse and the dynamic young baseball star and reveals their hidden depths. As it turns out, Kel Keller and Arthur Opp have more in common than would first appear and I was gripped by Moore’s analysis. I began to look forward to my tube journeys every day when I was reading this, which is always a sign that a book is good.

Moore says, “I am obsessed with the rhythm of my sentences—especially the rhythm of their endings” and this is an obsession that pays off for me. The prose in Heft has a loveliness that lifts its sad subject matter until it sounds like poetry – not the hard, dry, wordy stuff that makes schoolkids turn their noses up but the kind that speaks to you, the kind that illuminates the banal. Moore calls Heft ‘a homage to loneliness’, which sounds apt to me, but the book is not depressing – more haunting, a testament to the fact that there is more than one kind of unhappiness in the world and that there tends to be more to everyone than what they outwardly project to the world.

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Frank Skinner – drinking piss and near-misses with bricks

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Mr Literary Kitty bought me Frank Skinner’s autobiography for my birthday. He said it was the only book he’d ever bought off the back of reading the first line in a bookshop and laughing at it. I had high hopes as I’d always loved Skinner’s comedy and I fancied him quite inexplicably for a year or so at school, even though my friends shrieked with laughter. “He looks like a diseased lightbulb head!”

Anyway. It must be hard for a comedian to write an autobiography due to the pressure to make it relentlessly funny. Comedians are also famed for being people who make jokes to avoid talking seriously about themselves and their lives, and I wonder whether it made Frank Skinner uncomfortable to write about his life as a whole, rather than just the funny bits.

The Scotsman’s assertation on the book’s jacket is that: ‘Skinner has a pathological need to tell the truth’. He does share the rather humiliating experience of losing his virginity to a ropey old prostitute called Corky, but then embarrassments like that are Skinner’s bread and butter. It’s a hilarious, if stomach-churning story, but I can’t help thinking that he’d have left it out if it hadn’t been funny, however much it might have interested his readers.

For most of the book, Skinner skims as quickly as possible over the bits of his life where real emotion is involved. However, I’m not knocking him for not wanting to do a Cheryl Cole style soul-baring weepy, and admittedly there is more than one kind of honesty. Maybe Frank would argue that he had been more honest than Cheryl. He’s certainly funnier. If Cheryl has a Corky-style story she’s keeping it well and truly under wraps. Anyway, this flippancy seems to change as the book goes along and there are actually a few quite touching moments, especially when Skinner talks about his dad’s death.

The ideal reader of this book would probably be male, fond of football and partial to knob-jokes. However, I’m none of those things and I still enjoyed it. The book has a chaotic timeline which wasn’t really my cup of tea but I understand Skinner’s desire to avoid that ‘long boring stretch of time before the person gets famous’. There are some fantastic anecdotes, including one about him accidentally making a stranger drink his piss in a crowded bar, and one about the time he (as a child) nearly killed his neighbour’s daughter with a brick. There are many more but I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book, especially with poor delivery.

Overall, Frank Skinner feels a lot like sitting in a pub with Frank Skinner and having him give you a rambling oral account of his life, complete with a lot of jokes, the odd tear and quite a lot of filth. Fans will love it, the very squeamish will hate it and most readers will appreciate the honesty and unflinching openness with which he tells his story to date.

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Status Anxiety – interesting and accessible (ignore the culture snobs)

I love Alain de Botton. I have done ever since I was at home sick and I watched a whole series of him presenting a user-friendly philosophy programme (Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, 4od), exploring concepts such as anger and love. Still, people are always complaining about him, like the Guardian, which says, in its critique of Status Anxiety:

“Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.”

OK, so allow me to clamber up on my soapbox for a moment. Not everyone wants to read the complete works of Plato in the original Greek as the Guardian probably wants to pretend it has. Some people will be quite grateful to Botton for doing his research and distilling it into an accessible, reader-friendly format in which he poses some thought-provoking questions and suggests a few interesting conclusions.

Far from having a tone of ‘complacent condescension’ I find Botton quite humble and thoughtful. He doesn’t hector his readers into agreeing with things and he doesn’t imply that they’re stupid, as the above Guardian writer is in danger of doing. As for ‘our debased culture’, I prefer to sidestep the notion that the good old days when church services were all in Latin were better. How would we even know?!

So Alain de Botton apparently ‘provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort’. Stepping out of the way of the condescension that drips from those hypocritical words I say: well, what’s wrong with that? If Botton can get people thinking about themselves and their interior lives without them feeling that they’d need to be a professor to understand what the hell he’s going on about then I’d say that’s a great skill, rather than something to be sneered at by people who like their culture complicated.

Status Anxiety takes the reader through a potted history of status in human society, including its changing nature over the years and how it affects us individually. Botton’s theory is that the causes of status anxiety lie in: lovelessness (or the fear of it), expectation, meritocracy, snobbery and dependence. He treats these causes separately (one per chapter) and has a number of interesting observations to make about them. The solutions, he opines, are: philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemianism – and he gives the layman plenty to chew over in terms of their impact on the human soul.

The only aspect of the book about which I agree with the Guardian is its illustrations: “banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams.” That we could, admittedly, have done without. But the rest of the Guardian’s comments say more about its own sense of status anxiety than they do about Alain de Botton and his readers. The review complains that “the real value of this volume – beautifully designed and manufactured by Hamish Hamilton – is not as a work of thought but as an object, a status symbol. If you read it on the train or in a coffee shop, you are declaring that not only are you the kind of sensitive, thoughtful person who reads improving literature, you are the kind of successful person who can afford to buy it in hardback.”

Or maybe we just thought we would learn something from it?

Grumpy windbag cynics can scoff all they like but Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is an interesting, accessible and measured introduction to the problems of the individual in society. Reading it might get you sneered at by Guardian readers who label you a vacuous ponce but by the end of the book you’ll have a new understanding of the importance of not caring what they think. That in itself makes Alain de Botton both relevant and useful – and I’ll fight with a stick anyone who tries to claim differently.*

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*Just kidding. I don’t have a stick. But don’t be mean about Alain de Botton.

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A Fraction of the Whole – epic in every way

I’m going to start this review by saying flat-out that A Fraction of the Whole is my book of the year. Already. I’m confident that nothing could come along and usurp it. I haven’t loved a book like this since Dinaw Mengestu’s Children of the Revolution. Tolz’s debut was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize but it lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (a worthy winner, I had thought, until I read this).

The book focuses on the tangled lives of the Dean family, primarily Terry Dean, sports hero turned robber turned murderer, his half-brother Martin Dean, a frustrated philosopher with perennial bad luck, and his son, Jasper Dean, who could spend a lifetime trying to unravel the parenting web that his father has spun tightly around him.

Tolz is a man who understands the entirety of the human condition, our strengths, our weaknesses, our shambolic failures, our victories, our failures masquerading as victories and vice versa. I wanted to underline paragraph after paragraph so I could remember the best bits and when travelling (drunk) on the train without a pen (never without a book, of course) I ended up tearing tiny corners off the pages to so I didn’t lose my favourite sections.

Even if this is the only book Steve Tolz ever writes, even if every book he writes after this is utter drivel, he will remain for me a great voice of the twenty-first century. He can do epic and moving to the point that you can practically hear violins swelling in the background and he can do witty – you can be smirking mere moments after you’ve wiped a tear. He would be an excellent speechwriter – delivering beautiful, unsettling soliloquies that make you want to slap the book down on the table and say “Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what people are like! Right there!”

And yet despite the book’s philosophical nature, it’s full of action, and not just mundane action but ACTION in capital letters. We’re talking murderers on the loose, millionaires being made, cars being crashed through strip club walls and fugitives escaping overseas.

This book is all about lives being overshadowed, whether by grief, inflexible thinking or others who have gone before – those who blaze a bright trail unmatchable by those who follow behind. I think it’s fair to say that Tolz is much more interested in life’s losers than in stories of triumph and glory and A Fraction of the Whole is lives up to its name with its exploration of human helplessness in the face of an unknowable future.

For Tolz’s characters, especially the luckless Martin Dean, good intentions almost always produce catastrophic results. ‘There before the grace of the universe go I’ seems to be a thought that is close to the author’s heart and it is one that interests me too. I remember reading Frank Skinner’s autobiography and in it he recounts the time when, as a child, he threw a brick at a little girl’s face in a moment of petulance. The girl (his next door neighbour) mercifully came off with cuts and bruises and Skinner escaped with no more than a furious reprimand from his parents – but he seems genuinely quite harrowed by how different the story could have been. No one, he notes, wants to laugh along with the child-killer comedian who bricked a little girl to death. But Frank Skinner got lucky where Martin Dean does not although Frank Skinner had to write his own life story whereas Martin’s is done for him, skilfully, touchingly and superlatively by Steve Tolz. Do not miss out on this book – it is seven hundred pages of absolute magic.

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