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Reading for pleasure

16 December 13

This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor

by David J Dickson, Tom Johnston

The Guts

Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape: £12.99; e-book £8.54)

- Grand. Are yeh havin’ another?

- No, said Jimmy. I’m drivin’.

- Fair enough.

- I have cancer.

- Good man.

- I’m bein’ serious, Da.

- I know.

Thus we learn of the condition of the now 47 year old Jimmy Rabbitte, sometime manager and hero of The Commitments¸ part of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy masterpiece. Now married with four kids, Jimmy’s love of music continues through his involvement in a business called kelticpunk.

Dubbed a music fascist by his family, Jimmy’s trenchant views on all popular music of the last thirty years explode out whenever Doyle takes a fancy. They are woven into a storyline featuring all stages of cancer, from initial disbelief and anger through to the horror of knowing how he will feel after the next bout of chemo. If this sounds morbid, it is most definitely not. Roddy Doyle is far too consummate a storyteller for that. The tale unfolds at a cracking pace. Characters from the past reappear: the luscious Imelda from The Commitments, and Outspan, the guitarist, whom Jimmy encounters at the cancer clinic. Are the true stars Moanin’ At Midnight, a Bulgarian band who have a smash with a long lost hit by Kevin Tankard, an Irish singer from the 1930s?

There is humour and pathos. It is easy to poke fun at the deceptively simple dialogue style, yet sometimes one page can span several days, or seamlessly link a handful of events. There is the grim reality of the subject matter – Jimmy’s cancer is of the bowel, hence the title – yet there is joy and a fair degree of the surreal, culminating in the boys’ weekend away at The Electric Picnic.

The inspiration to write this book apparently came from Doyle’s decision to write the musical of The Commitments, due to go into production next year. For committed fans there is therefore a double cause for celebration; for newcomers there are many treats in store.

The Quarry

Iain Banks (Little Brown: £18.99; e-book £8.55)

Banks began writing this book before he was diagnosed with cancer. It was published shortly after his death. Guy, the owner of Willoughtree House, has been diagnosed with cancer and appears to be in the end stages. He lives there with his son Kit, who is on the spectrum of Asperger’s syndrome: we observe how many steps he takes, his fantastic recall of film reviews.

Yet Guy is a brute. He is pigheaded, rude, arrogant, and worst of all deeply unkind towards Kit. Are we meant to observe that someone so gravely ill need not be seen as angelic and self effacing in their suffering, but rather, despite it all, remain a constant? Guy assembles his old university mates, who over the weekend reflect on what might have been and what might yet come. One of their number regards them as a bunch of "heathers" – a recall to a film where the women were all called Heather and were “a clique of really bitchy girls”.

Bitch, antagonise, sympathise, empathise – the group do these in abundance as they have a final weekend together. Kit does not know his number, yet Guy has cruelly suggested any of the women present could be. The house is slowly packed up, as they all search for an elusive tape made in younger days which, if released, will cause embarrassment.

This book is reminiscent of the film Peter’s Friends, but with a darker, more humorous edge. It is all overlain with the quarry, which will, through expansion and undermining, lead to the collapse and destruction of Willoughtree House, a home, a refuge, a place of many memories and people who passed through it. In other words, a life drawing to an inevitable, sad and devastating end. Brilliant!

Betrayal

Adrian van Dis (tr. Ina Rilke) (MacLehose Press: £16.99; e-book £ 11.64)

One perfectly painted apple does not a Cezanne make. Nor does an immaculately performed arpeggio announce the arrival of the new Sutherland, Baker or te Kanawa. So when one reads on the dust jacket that the author is “The Netherlands’ very own Graham Greene”, there is immediate cause for concern. If you allow your book to go out described like that, Mr van Dis, be able to write, or leave town immediately.

I think he can stay for a while yet. This is the story of Mulder, a Dutchman returning after 40 years to a South Africa he fought to liberate from apartheid. Meeting up again with his old South African friend Donald, both the past and the present are reassessed. Which is the betrayal of the title? Is it in a simple mistake which led to the arrest of a colleague all those years ago? Is it the betrayal felt by the local community who see no major improvement in their lot following the change of regime? Or is it in the way that Mulder and Donald’s efforts to help a young man in their beleaguered village go horribly awry?

While a comparison can’t be made properly on the basis of a single book, there are undoubtedly parts of the topography of Greeneland to be found here. The alienation, the inhospitable reality of a country that could be a paradise, and the general sense of decay all bring back memories of the master at work. This is a powerful and slightly disturbing book, but a very fine piece of work.

A Greedy Man in a Hungry World

Why (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About Food Is Wrong

Jay Rayner (William Collins: £12.99; e-book £6.49)

Never mind dual personalities – there must be at least three Jay Rayners. I had known him up until now as a well respected and knowledgeable food critic. He is probably best known to many as a regular on BBC TV’s The One Show, which, for all its many estimable qualities, is not a showcase for great journalism. So I was unprepared for the depth and seriousness of this fascinating insight into today’s food industry. Serious, but with Rayner’s characteristic tell-it-like-it-is humour, laced with memories of his family life.

Many sacred cows are slaughtered in this book’s pages, and many icons are clasted. No, Rayner argues, supermarkets are not necessarily evil. Organic will not save the world. High price, top of the range food may be great for the wealthy, but it won’t be of much use when the global population hits the 7 billion mark, as it will later this century. Written from the standpoint of a food lover, a self-confessed greedy b*****d, this is a wakeup call for the complacent and a call to arms to those who are concerned that their grandchildren will have enough to eat at affordable levels. If you’re interested in food, read this book; if you care about the future, read this book; if you’re not afraid of inconvenient truths, read this book.

How to Choose a Sweetheart:

Nigel Bird (e-book £2.99)

Nigel Bird has turned his talents to a new and welcome genre. No violence, no bloodletting. A deceptively straightforward love story. Max and Jazz were once close. No more. Cath comes into the bookshop where they work, posting an advert for a piano teacher. Max needs to meet Cath, but how? He can't play the piano – or can he?.The book has a real sense of place, drawing the reader in, gently enveloping them in the warm aura. The characters are well drawn and utterly believable, from Cath’s daughter Alice to the irrepressible Mr Evans. Let’s hope there are more like this to follow

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