Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Moonglow by Michael Chabon - review

Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga
By Michael Chabon
430 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers.

A. O. Scott
The New York Times
18 November 2016

Michael Chabon’s new book is described on the title page as “a novel,” in an author’s note as a “memoir” and in the acknowledgments as a “pack of lies.” This is neither as confusing nor as devious as it might sound, since “Moonglow” is less a self-conscious postmodern high-wire act than an easygoing hybrid of forms. Chabon has what sounds like a mostly true story to tell — about characters whose only names are “my grandmother” and “my grandfather,” and also about mental illness, snake hunting, the Holocaust and rocket science — and he may not have wanted to be bound too tightly by the constraints of literal accuracy in telling it.

At the same time, he has shaken loose the formal conventions of fiction, liberating himself in particular from the tyranny of plot. In his previous books, Chabon has always shown great skill at operating the novelistic machinery of cause and effect, foreshadowing and surprise, especially in semi-fabulist confections like “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” But in more realistic books the humming of those narrative engines can sometimes drown out the interesting cacophony of life. For me, that was the case in “Telegraph Avenue,” a well-observed slice of gentrifying urban life clogged with a bit too much Dickensian contrivance to work as well as it should have.

“Moonglow,” in happy contrast, wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography — from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after — with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy. A sensational and tragic revelation that might have been at the volcanic center of a more familiar kind of book is disclosed almost in passing. There are moments at which you can feel the irresistible temptation to embellish and invent, to infuse reality with Chabonesque touches of wistful Jewish magic realism, being resisted.

But not entirely. “After I’m gone, write it down,” Chabon’s grandfather instructs him. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.” “Moonglow” both obeys these instructions and rebels against them, preserving the mishmash and mixing in generous dollops of meaning, a sprinkling of fancy metaphors and an abundance of beautiful sentences so that it becomes a rich and exotic confection. Too strict a recipe would have spoiled the charm of this layer cake of nested memories and family legends, which have been arranged with painstaking haphazardness.

Mementos, curios and old photographs figure prominently, as evidence of past actions and symbols of their hidden significance. Through these objects, recollected dialogue and his own powers of speculation, Chabon constructs a loving, partial portrait of an unlikely, volatile and durable marriage. At a synagogue gala in Baltimore in 1947, an irascible veteran from Philadelphia meets a melancholy refugee from France with a fetching accent, a young daughter and a concentration camp tattoo. The daughter will be Chabon’s mother. His scapegrace father, whom readers of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” will recognize, makes a few brief appearances later on, but this book dwells mainly on the mysteries of the maternal line.

The union of Chabon’s grandparents is disrupted by hospitalizations and imprisonment. His grandmother, who grew up near a tannery in Lille, is haunted by visions of a “skinless horse,” a monstrous creature that seems to embody the unspeakable, intimate horrors of Nazism. Her delusions test her husband’s patience, but they also illuminate his loyalty and ardor. A tough man whose temper is hot enough to bring him close to murdering an employer (which earns him 20 months in a New York State prison), he is guided by ethical instincts that seem to him as inarguable as the laws of physics. Promises must be kept, bullies must be brought down, hypocrites must be exposed, and the weak must be protected. He is stubborn and chivalrous, blunt and generous, physically brave and intellectually nimble.

In literary terms, Chabon’s grandfather might be the humbler cousin of Swede Levov, Philip Roth’s tragic paragon of American Jewish manhood from “American Pastoral.” He occupies a similar mid-Atlantic, rapidly assimilating geographical and cultural space and embodies similar secular Jewish virtues. But the book, rather than witnessing his fall, elevates him. It’s not a chronicle of filial revenge; it’s a grandchild’s testament of wonder and devotion. Grandpa chases the Nazi rocket-builder Wernher von Braun in Germany at the end of the war and stalks a pet-killing reptile in a Florida retirement community many years later. Fascinated by space travel, he designs rockets, builds a model moon base and drives for hours to watch the shuttle launch.

Grandma, meanwhile, fascinates young Michael with her old-world mannerisms and her witchy association with tarot cards, scary puppets and haunting tales. “Almost 50 years later I still remember some of her stories,” Chabon writes. “Bits of them have consciously and unconsciously found their way into my work.” And this book, a love letter to two temperamentally opposite grandparents — one a rational, practical American, the other a dreamy, romantic European — is also an account of their formative influences on the writer their grandson would become.

These are not so much explained as felt, woven into the very fabric of Chabon’s supple and resourceful prose. He brings the world of his grandparents to life in language that seems to partake of their essences. When he describes an asylum pageant staged by his grandmother, the feverish poetry of the images seems like the product of her tormented, enchanted consciousness: “Darkness falls over the field of clover, dawn breaks on the moon. Jagged moon mountains glow cool and silvery blue in the background as the bee herder, hatchet restored, strolls along unfazed by his new surroundings. He passes silver moon trees like the skeletons of cacti.”

This fantastical landscape coexists with an all-too-real one — a blasted German town described in the precise, engineer’s language of the grandfather: “The stray 88 had knocked the square tower off the shoulders of St. Dominic’s Church. The beams holding up the roof, which was clad in metal, had collapsed and caught fire. In their collapse, the roof beams had formed a kind of bowl or funnel into which the metal roof, now a molten pool, had poured. The glowing drizzle had burned a hole in the sandstone floor, then flowed through to fill the crypt. What missed the hole spread in ripples across the floor, setting fire to everything it touched that was not made of stone.”

Whatever else it is — a novel, a memoir, a pack of lies, a mishmash — this book is beautiful.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Laszlo Torday - Photographs of Newcastle

Laszlo Torday (originally Tordai), who emigrated from Hungary to Tynemouth in 1940, was a chemical engineer and industrialist who took thousands of photographs of the centre of Newcastle and the suburbs of High Heaton,  Heaton, Byker and Jesmond in the 1960s and 1970s. His images have been bought and digitised by Newcastle City Libraries and are avilable here: www.flickr.com/newcastlelibraries

He is the father, I believe, of Paul Torday, the late novelist known particularly for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

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Bigg Market and old town hall. Remember the zoo?

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High Bridge, 1970

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The Side

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Northumberland Street

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High Friar Street

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Blackett Street

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Nelson Street

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Northumberland Street

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Fenwick's, Blackett Street

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Swing Bridge

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High Bridge

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Grey Street/High Bridge

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Grainger Marker

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Handyside Arcade

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Grainger Market

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Bigg Market

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Groat Market

Friday, 13 January 2017

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Last night's set lists

Our host kicking off the show with one of his excellent songs, as seen from the bar

At The Habit, York: -

Set 1: -
One Of These Days

Set 2: -
I Don't Want To Talk About It

There was no Elderly Brothers set this week as Ron was away. There was a much better showing than last week with more players and punters in attendance. Some outstanding guitar playing from a couple of lasses and some fine open-tuned country blues from a guy I hadn't seen before. It was 2 songs each and then again with whoever was still around for one more. The after-show acoustic sing-song became a request spot for all manner of tunes inc. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Andrew Gold and of course Neil Young.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Peter Sarstedt RIP

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Peter Sarstedt obituary
Singer-songwriter who topped the charts in 1969 with Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)

Dave Laing
The Guardian
Monday 9 January 2017

For many weeks in the spring and summer of 1969, the names of Zizi Jeanmaire, the Aga Khan and Juan-les-Pins reverberated mellifluously around the British and international pop scene. They appeared in the lyrics of the chart-topping Where Do You Go to (My Lovely), written and sung by Peter Sarstedt, who has died aged 75.

Composed in waltz time, bookended by generic French-flavoured accordion phrases and with echoes of francophone chansonniers such as Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, the song told the story of one Marie Claire, who had risen from the “back streets of Naples” to join the Mediterranean jet set. When the similarity of this back-story to that of Sophia Loren was pointed out, Sarstedt was quick to state: “I really wasn’t thinking of anyone specific.”

He was born in Delhi, one of six children of English expatriates, Albert and Coral Sarstedt. Albert was an accountant who managed a tea plantation in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal. Following his death in 1954, the family moved to south London.

The Sarstedts were a musical family and Peter, his older brother, Richard, and younger siblings, Clive and Lorraine, all learned the guitar. This was the era of skiffle, and the three brothers joined a group, the Fabulous Five. They played at church halls and coffee bars around the Croydon area before metamorphosing into a beat group, the Saints, with Richard Sarstedt as the featured singer. He was offered a recording contract in 1960, and after a change of name to Eden Kane, scored a No 1 hit with Well I Ask You the following year.

Peter played bass guitar in Eden Kane’s backing group until, in 1965, his brother decided to move to Australia. Peter emigrated briefly to Copenhagen, where he began to write songs in a contemporary folk vein. Returning to London, he began a recording career as Peter Lincoln before reverting to his real name. In 1968 he signed to the United Artists label, but his first single, I Am a Cathedral, was unsuccessful.

He next came up with Where Do You Go to (My Lovely). Sarstedt later explained that he was following a trend for meaningful songs of more than three minutes’ duration: “I wanted to write a long extended piece because I was working in folk clubs and universities.”

When Sarstedt and the producer Ray Singer presented the record company with the completed track, the response was unpromising: the song was too long, it featured only three instruments, including an accordion, and no drums. Eventually, United Artists relented after cutting one verse which included the line “your body is firm and inviting”. Within a few weeks of its release, Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) had topped the charts and Sarstedt’s bushy hair and Zapata moustache were regularly featured on Top of the Pops.

The song stayed at No 1 for four weeks before making way for Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) went on to top the charts throughout most of Europe as well as Australia and Japan, but its cosmopolitanism failed to excite record buyers in the US, where it sold poorly.

Although it won the Ivor Novello award for best song of 1969 (shared with Space Oddity by David Bowie), Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) divided listeners at the time and has done ever since, with some finding it pretentious, if not preposterous. It inspired parodies by Roger McGough, John Otway and the Flight of the Conchords. On the other hand, the director Wes Anderson included it on the soundtrack of two films, Hotel Chevalier (2007) and The Darjeeling Limited (2012), and the British group Right Said Fred, made a comparatively respectful cover version in 2006. Sarstedt composed a follow up for his 1997 album England’s Lane. The Last of the Breed (Lovely 2) described Marie Claire 20 years on and living in a London of Claridge’s, Harrods and John Galliano.

The follow-up single, Frozen Orange Juice, was a Top 10 hit later in 1969, but further records were not commercially successful, although Sarstedt’s compositions continued to find admirers: one reviewer described the song Beirut as “an entire novel of Eric Ambler complexities in three minutes”.

From the 1970s until his retirement in 2010 when he was diagnosed with the progressive supranuclear palsy that led to his death, Sarstedt recorded more than a dozen albums and performed frequently. Among the albums was a 1973 collaboration with his brothers, Worlds Apart Together. Using the name Robin Sarstedt, his younger brother Clive had his own hit record with My Resistance Is Low in 1976, making the Sarstedts the first family with three siblings to achieve separate chart success. For some years, Peter Sarstedt was a mainstay of the Solid Silver 60s touring show alongside other veterans of the era.

Sarstedt was twice married and had two children, Anna and Daniel.

• Peter Eardley Sarstedt, singer and songwriter, born 10 December 1941; died 8 January 2017


Monday, 9 January 2017

J. D. Salinger and his fans...

Hey Mr Salinger

For a year in 1996, Joanna Smith Rakoff was in charge of answering JD Salinger's fanmail. Salinger was famously reclusive, wanting nothing to do with his fans and Rakoff was supposed to send out a standard letter. But as she read the letters she found herself pulled into their lives, and secretly, surreptitiously she started answering them.

In this confessional documentary Joanna rediscovers the letters she answered and meets the people who wrote them. She introduces us to the teenager struggling at school, told by her teacher she would get an A for English if she received a reply from Salinger. We hear about the Japanese girl who wrote two letters, one in Japanese and one in English because she thought that Salinger was so smart he would probably know Japanese. Joanna remembers the woman whose daughter loved the short story 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish'. When her daughter died young, her mother wanted to set up a literary magazine and asked if she could call it 'Bananafish'. As Joanna says "if at first I found [them] weird, after a few months I found [them] - well, still weird, but also many other things: sad, sweet, stupid, hopeful, obsessive."

Until she worked at Ober, Rakoff was not a fan of Salinger's, but through reading his correspondence she saw what an incredible connection he made with his readers. She found herself reading Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey with new eyes, seeing it as not the cutesy fiction she remembered, but as something more honest and troubled. It helped her move from being an uptight critic to becoming a writer.

And once, during one of his rare visits to New York, she even met the great man himself. We hear how tempted she was to give him one of the most touching and personal letters she ever received and why she decided not to

Producer: James Crawford
A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.