Book reviews

This weeks top reads and the ones to avoid. Get scouring the shelves for Dirk Wittenborn's latest…

Time In
Lowside Of The Road: A Life Of Tom Waits Barney Hoskyns

5/7
Faber & Faber Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s

A tough one to nail this, the life story of one of music’s most enigmatic figures. To be fair, Barney Hoskyns deals with the ‘access’ issues early in his prologue, and then backs up his disclaimer in the book’s appendix by publishing a series of politely obstructive responses to requests for interviews from people in Waits’s life, particularly the man himself and his wife, Kathleen Brennan.

‘One of the hardest things,’ writes Hoskyns, ‘has been not taking umbrage at this intransigent duo – and particularly at the shadowy Kathleen, conceivably the architect of the wall of inaccessibility erected around her husband.’

But Hoskyns does an excellent job of piecing together the life of the performer and songwriter from the fragmentary evidence at his disposal. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t tell us much about the aforementioned ‘shadowy’ Brennan, because her influence on Waits’s career has never been satisfactorily explained.

The people Hoskyns does persuade to talk – many of them west coast characters seemingly straight out of the Waits songbook – add wonderful brushes of colour. There’s Sal Crivello, the co-owner of a pizza house in the San Diego suburb, who recalls Waits playing Ray Charles on the jukebox and dropping in periodically over the years for coffee and chats; Bones Howe, who produced seven Waits albums between 1974 and 1982; and a cast of school friends and Californian folk and jazz bums – enough to fill the Troubadour 10 times over.

There’s even a cameo from Keanu Reeves, who remembers the evening at Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa Valley retreat during the filming of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when Waits serenaded Winona Ryder at the piano with a rendition of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ that made her cry. Also, the musical criticism is sharp and revealing, and Hoskyns’s narrative skips along like a Waits polka.

Although the singer’s family life is difficult to penetrate, Hoskyns does offer one or two brilliant insights, such as the image of a fifty-something Waits accompanying his young son Sullivan on a school trip to a local recycling factory. Immediately, there is a commotion as Waits is recognised and surrounded. ‘Everybody,’ says Waits forlornly, ‘knows me at the dump.’
Gordon Thomson

The Train Of Ice & Fire Ramón Chao

4/7
Route Publishing Dhs98 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The Train Of Ice & Fire would make a great piece of fiction if it weren’t already a true story. Set in 1993 on the first passenger train to run on Colombia’s grass-covered tracks in 13 years, it tells the story of a ‘crusade of hope’. On tour in war-torn Colombia with his French supergroup Manu Negra, rock revolutionary Mano Chao saw there were no trains. So he decided to assemble a team of French idealists and Colombian railway men to build one to travel from Bogotá to Santa Marta and back. Accompanied by a ramshackle cargo of 100 performers, acrobats, tattoo artists and a fire-breathing dragon named Roberto, they gave free music, theatre and circus performances at train stations along the way.

Manu’s father, Ramón – a distinguished writer, journalist and critic for Le Monde – was enlisted to chronicle the journey. The cool ice to his son’s rebellious fire, Ramón Chao chooses not to tell the story we might expect: that of the break-up of Manu Negra (months on a train with no heating or washing facilities will do that to a band). Nor does he chronicle Chao Junior’s subsequent ascent to solo stardom.

The Train Of Ice & Fire is the story of Colombia. Beyond the country’s well-worn coat of kidnappings, paramilitaries and social inequity, the author lovingly uncovers the fascinating history and still-beating heart of a country – at the time, the most violent in the world due to a long-running conflict fuelled by the country’s cocaine trade – with an extraordinary propensity for miracles amid great suffering.

In taking a block of ice to the town in which the novel is based, Ramón Chao pays homage to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. But as a writer he doesn’t go in much for magical realism or luscious imagery. While Chao is an excellent historian, adept at bringing sometimes obscure events to dramatic life, as a diarist he never quite makes an emotional connection with all that’s happening around him. Names, faces and places pass through the book like stations on a high-speed train.
It would have been nice to stop off and take it all in once in a while.
Tamara Gausi

Pharmakon Dirk Wittenborn

5/7
Bloomsbury Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The drugs definitely don’t work in this noxious, sharply penned and mostly enjoyable tale of neuroses and the pursuit of chemical-induced happiness among the ’50s Yale psychiatry set. Dr William Friedrich is the insular family man at the book’s centre, frantic in his attempts to exploit his towering IQ and make a name for himself in the precarious field of psychological pharmacy. Filching an idea from professionally suppressed female colleague Bunny Winton and seeing a potential guinea pig in Salinger-esque neurotic teen Casper Gedsic, Friedrich decides to begin human trials on an experimental drug used chiefly in Latin American tribal rituals that comes with the mildly chilling tag ‘The Way Home’. Suffice to say, the drugs send Casper slightly crackers and Winton and Friedrich eventually find themselves using their superior IQs to steer clear of his violently psychotic episodes.

Wittenborn’s ironic, subtly contemptuous tone (think a less studied version of Jonathan Franzen) suits his subject matter well. Ethical dilemmas over the responsibility and usefulness of clinical trials in the name of social and professional aggrandisement are rigorously and amusingly probed as the characters’ veneer of sanity crumbles. Still, there are problems, especially in the later stages when the Casper plot jolts to a halt, replaced with the exploits of Friedrich’s enthusiastically druggy son and rounded off with a soppy group hug conclusion that details how the doctor rebuilds his life. It also feels as though Wittenborn has taken an easy option in choosing to push his characters into a mould most readers will instantly recognise as stereotypically ’50s American (i.e clean-cut, emotionally repressed, afraid of family, acutely conscious of social hypocrisy, etc) instead of going for something a little more inventive and unexpected. These are minor niggles, though.
David Jenkins

The Chalk Circle Man Fred Vargas

5/7
Harvill Secker Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The wonderful Commissaire Adamsberg novels by the Paris-based French crime writer, archaeologist and political activist Fred Vargas, have been runaway successes in Britain. It’s surprising, then, to find that the most recent to be translated into English is in fact her debut Adamsberg outing, written more than a decade ago.

When the commissaire arrives in Paris to take up a new post, this surrealist sleuth from the Pyrenees finds a bureau full of problems. His girlfriend is hounding him to commit, his ex is playing on his mind and a maniac is drawing chalk circles on the city’s pavements. The words ‘Victor, woe’s in store, what are you out here for?’ are neatly written around the circumference of each circle while random objects (a pigeon’s foot, a cork, a Spanish dictionary) are placed inside. Adamsberg believes something more sinister is on its way. He’s proved right when an encircled woman is found with her throat slit wide. The usual Vargas array of oddballs, including a feisty oceanographer and a blind anatomist, provide the leads.

Vargas smoothly summons up a city of stark and beautiful contradictions: melancholy alleyways and reassuring riverbanks, loners and friends, disparate arrondissements and cosy retreats. And Adamsberg is a distinctly different detective. He’s resigned to his own peculiarity but not to life’s existential questions. He’s French, after all. Looking at his cases askew, he takes a languid approach to detection. Rather than Un Flic’s procedural processes, he opts for random intuition at a snail’s pace. The thing about a mystery, believes Adamsberg, is that ‘what gets it untangled is knowledge, you just have to let the knowledge come to you’. Put like that, perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that it has taken us so long to discover how it all began.
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