Thursday, 17 December 2015

My 5 Favourite Reads of 2015

It's been a good year for reading, which isn't always the case, especially to judge by an uninvolving Man booker shortlist this year, though I have bought the Booker winner though that one will be a read for 2016.

I read 33 books this year, including one friend's, one author I started following on Twitter without making the connection to his book that had made it into my TBR pile, 3 works of non-fiction and one large 500 page tome I hope to finish before the year end which had I have completed it in time, might have squeezed into my list here - 
even if it did make the shortlist for bad sex in literature award this year. 2015 was also the year I popped my David Foster Wallace cherry with a collection of his short stories, but it was an unsatisfying experience so as yet I'm no further inclined to tackle "The Infinite Jest".
Anyway, here's my top 5.


I've had a mixed relationship with the work of Dave Eggers. Sometimes his literary conceits work for me and sometimes they fall miserably flat. This was almost perfect satire from beginning to end. People talked up "Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookshop" which pitted the ancient book against the new online technology. I found that particular tome vapid, the characters uninvolving. For me Eggers was far more convincing in both spheres. I've heard criticism that the main character is two-dimensional and a mere mouthpiece for the points Eggers wants to get across about the menace of surrendering our lives to public scrutiny by putting ourselves body and soul online. But I found her slow grooming into the "Circle's" value system and global takeover ambitions rather nicely plotted and modulated. The Circle (Google/FB) is shown as a corporate cult, all its employees have to subscibe to the living tenets by which to organise their lives. Clever and spot on.

From my Goodreads review - A fiendishly brilliant satire on the way we as a society are a headed. If 1984 drops you right into an oppressive totalitarian regime, Eggers in this book takes you on the incremental journey how we end up there, not through brute force, but through technology. The oppressor is not the government, but a corporation who outflank the government and make it pay obeisance to them and their data and their surveillance; now politicians can be held accountable to their actions through transparency.


Where to start with this one? Other than to say I revelled in its irreverence. Irreverence towards the notion of story, of language, of everything we comfort ourselves by the notion of a novel. It reminded me of the detonations of language as Ben Marcus' "The Age Of Wire And String". I'll let part of my Goodreads review paint a picture - "This, my bedroom, with the stirrups, and the paneled bleachers stuffed overboard with chunky puppets. The men left encamped inside the father where he burst through all his horse suits like a dickface overall." The key word here, the perhaps lone orienting milepost, is 'stirrups', not in its equine sense, but in a gynecological one. For while I would never proffer the following as the definitive answer to what is the book about, I think this is a book from the fish-eye view of a foetus in the womb, peering out at the carnage and power relationships each time her parents have sex. The book is filled with slits and slots and stoma and a whole myriad of openings for gases, liquids and of course vision to squeeze through. And yes there is the implication of pedophilia too. The whole book reads like an assault, on the senses and the sensibilities, which is why one can never really recommend it, since not every reader is going to be comfortable with it. 

But I'm going to be contrary and recommend it now! For readers with fairly strong stomachs probably. 


I don't care what people say about Michel Houellebecq the man, but he is a top notch writer and thinker. Curmudgeon at best, misanthrope in the French tradition at worst, he shines a light upon the dreariness of human existence, but he always contextualises it in utterly recognisable ways and his political analysis through the pages is acute and forces the reader to think. No mean feat. This was his best yet, because it was a little less searing in its despair, yet his analysis of religion and race remain trenchant as ever. From my Goodreads review - For all the politics and philosophy and questing for purpose, what it all comes down to is the love of a good woman, or with Houellebecq's jaundiced view, the companionship of a good woman.


The book that was a long time in the making as apparently after his Booker nominated "C", he embarked on this but dumped it all in the bin and started afresh. I'm just going to reproduce a chunk of my review as it gives the picture of what the book is about and thereby its approach and form - A book about writing the great Pandect, the book about everything, 'to name our era, to sum it up'. Only of course this is an impossible task. The moment you make a decision what to start with, you exclude everything else and already have gone down a very singular, subjective track. The protagonist 'U' (echoes of Kafka's 'K'?) just about gets a title by the book's end. 

As McCarthy warns us early on, if you're in this for a story, you're in the wrong book. This is a montage, the remarkable application of mise en scene to a work of prose. So parachutes elide with jellyfish and oil spills with a metastatising tumour. U struggles to determine what is a genuine association from that which is synchronous or purely arbitrary. 

And why is he charged with this great feat? There are no more Renaissance Men, able to be learned in all branches of knowledge, yet international corporations put all manner of specialists on their payroll to feed into containing and predicting the commercial zeitgeist; U is an anthropologist, throwing ancient rites such as the death of a tribesman to herald the new year practised by the Vanuatuans with the waste landfill of Fresh Kills Staten island. 

Michel Faber is probably the supreme stylist writing today. His writing seems so effortless, whether a mammoth tome like this, a collection of short stories or a short novel like "The Courage Consort", the words are sheer perfection. This his latest opus, contains so many elements I shouldn't like, a book about quiet religious faith, the strains of a marital couple separated by distance and dwelling among aliens on their home planet. But this story is like a beautiful tapestry knitted together seamlessly that just aches with the humanity of its two main protagonists even while setting up an alien world of real imaginative interest. From my Goodreads review 

As close to a perfect read as I've ever come across.

A story that dissects a husband and wife's love so expertly.

A book that tears back the veil of communication and how double-edged it is and how easy to misinterpret meaning. 

A science fiction world that wears its inventiveness very lightly, yet somehow manages to authentically conjure up a truly alien sensibility. 

A novel about religious faith which I would normally run a million miles from rather than read and enjoy.


Monday, 14 December 2015

If Food Be The Music Of Love, Play On - 15 food songs

Food in songs, what could be more tasty a nugget than the 3-minute pop song to chew on? Sadly there doesn't seem to be any video of Cornershop's "Chicken In A Basket" as even they on their blog say they don't have the rights to the video, but we press on with other munchable classics. The Stranglers' "Peaches" doesn't count. Wrong sort of peaches...

1) "American Pie" - Don McLean
We'll start with the obvious one, the one that everyone could instantly come up with. Although the actual reference to the food item is pretty tenuous.

2) "Roast Fish And Cornbread" - Lee Scratch Perry
Sounds like it's been recorded in somebody's echoey bathroom, but that's perhaps it's genius.

3) "Cheeseburger" - Gang Of Four
I always thought this song was all over the place musically, not one of their best.

4) "Hot Burrito #1" - Flying Burrito Brothers
I'm not a fan of Country and Western, but let's face it, what other music genre is going to pen an ode to the mighty burrito? Certainly not Death metal that's for sure. And Wall of Voodoo wrote "Mexican Radio" but nothing to foodstuffs of the region...

5) Apples And Oranges" - Pink Floyd
Syd Barret Floyd with that delicious mix of pop sensibility with psychedelic off key distortion. Fruit loops.

6) "Eggs For Rib" - Cop Shoot Cop
And on the other end of the spectrum, post-punk/industrial bass heavy noise makers from New York. Don't be fooled by the quiet intro.

7) "Jumbalaya" - Carpenters
I dunno, something poignant about anorexic victim Karen Carpenter singing about a food dish.

8) "Fish Fry" - Big Black
Okay so the song doesn't really have much to do with the food, but then I don't eat fish fried or otherwise. You don't know where it's been. Well you do obviously, the sea, but I mean you don't know what's been in the sea.

9) "Toast" - Streetband
Do Americans have these one-off novelty hits in their music charts? Now it's all ringtones I suppose, so you don't get any of this nonsense, just "Crazy Frog".

10) "Hot Dog" - Led Zeppelin 
Call it heavy rock, call it rock and roll, this song quite clearly shows them to be 12 Bar Blues and Boogie. From the bayous of West Bromwich. Fancy that.

11) "Sixteen Saltines" - Jack White
Being British I didn't actually know what saltines were until I looked them up. What we call 'crackers' but that means something completely different in the U.S of A. This video is vaguely disturbing on a couple of levels. 

12) "Jerk Ribs" - Kelis
The bass is very catchy, more interesting than the song. Just my opinion like.

13) "Life Is A Minestrone" - 10 CC
Ah the 70s... Now you appreciate why punk had to come along and shake things up a bit. Life in London in 1977 was not a bowl of minestrone I can tell you...

14) "Beef" - Gary Clail and The On-U Sound System
Love this song although the remix isn't as sharp and tight a tune as the original album track, but you can't seem to track that original down any more.

15) "Pulling Mussels From A Shell"
Ah Squeeze, great subversive pop songs that ascended the charts, but yet responsible for unleashing Jools Holland on the world. Wins some lose some I guess. 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

I Vow To Thee My Country - That You Got It Badly Wrong

There's no doubting that the situation in Syria is immensely complicated. Two ex-members of the military who are Conservative MPs voted against their Party and opposed a bombing campaign of Syria. An ex-member of the military who is a Labour MP opposed his Party line and voted in favour of bombing. Perhaps the most telling individual vote was that of the Chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Foreign Affairs, Conservative MP John Baron, voted against bombing (as he did in the vote on bombing Libya).

You'd hope your delegated political representatives would have some handle on the intricacies. But in the recent day long Parliamentary debate and vote, the level of political and strategic analysis was in short supply, replaced by moral and emotional pleas on one side or the other. Or the debate was partly hijacked by the Prime Minister's rather inflammatory assertion that to vote against the proposed campaign equated you to a terrorist sympathiser and consequent demands by outraged MPs for him to apologise for such a statement.

But I'm going to try and pick the emotions and moral outrage out of the debate and offer some crystal clear rebuttals to the arguments made in favour of bombing Syria. Of course readers may not agree with either these arguments or the position to oppose bombing and that's fine. But I hope to show that that the points offered during that debate are not enough to clinch any argument.


The main argument was that bombing Syria increases the security on Britain's streets. Actually it does the very opposite. Those in Syria are not the threat to us here at home. Rather it is from UK citizens already living here. You may say that such homegrown terror is co-ordinated from Syria. But it doesn't have to be. Recently a fourteen year old boy from Blackburn was jailed for mentoring a would-be terrorist in Australia. The nature of global communications means you don't actually need a command and control centre to co-ordinate your terror campaign. Of the Paris terrorists, no more than two had returned from Syria. To fight for ISIS's cause does not entail seeing service or training in Iraq or Syria. There will not be ISIS fighters coming back from Syria at this point in time to perpetrate a terrorist act on British soil. If any potential UK terrorists have seen service there, they are already back in the UK (and you have to ask questions of our intelligence service as to how they have been able to sneak back in).

So the terror threat remains ever-present. Why therefore do I say that the vote for bombing makes the UK less secure? Look at the way Islamic terror operates. They cannot sustain a campaign against any single country. So there have been individual attacks in Canada, Australia, France, Lebanon, Turkey. And of course the Russian airliner shot down in Egypt, a very rapid response to Russian bombs falling on ISIS areas. In the case of the Western targets, each time their participation in the air war against Islamic State is cited as the reason. Terrorists want to send a message and with only one chance to do so (such is the nature of suicide missions) they have to stage what they see as a spectacular. By voting to bomb Syria, the UK has just placed itself in line for a similar response from ISIS and it supporters. Britain will need to be taught a lesson is the logic. Or the logic or reprisal. Terror acts in the UK have always been a possibility, but with this vote I believe it has now become an inevitability. Not just me either, for only today UK intelligence services report that the vote has increased the likelihood we would become a target. Have they only just realised that? Or did they they know this all the time but fail to inform the Prime Minister? Or maybe he just ignored that advice.

Ah but we are already fighting the Islamic State by bombing Iraq were some of the arguments advanced during the debate. For the sake of a few hundred yards across a border that ISIS has abolished what is the difference? Well seems to me you can't have it both ways, if you want to deny the legitimacy of ISIS and re-establish the territorial legitimacy of both Iraq and Syria, then you have to continue to recognise the integrity of those borders.

The next argument was that France has asked for us to step up to the plate and assist them in the light of the atrocities in Paris. Added to that is that the UN basically gave a green light to go to war on ISIS. The argument is advanced that we in Britain must not only support our friends and allies, but we cannot allow others to do the job of protecting us while we stand to the side doing nothing. And yet that is exactly what we and the whole of the West has been doing by allowing the Kurds to bear the entire burden of facing ISIS on the ground. Since ISIS' dramatic expansion of territory, we have apparently been perfectly happy to have others provide our protection and security, so that argument just does not hold water. Now there are perfectly strong reasons why Western troops should not be committed to Syria and Iraq, since that will just escalate everything in the region and provide a rallying call to the ISIS cause. But don't then posit that we take care of our own security.

Jumping in to the cause of our allies is hugely problematical as well. Since the collapse of Communism, NATO s no longer facing a united bloc of foes. I would argue that it has ceased to be of use, rather it increases the likelihood of war and conflict rather than head it off. An attack on one NATO country is deemed an attack on them all. If Francoise Hollande had called for NATO to attack ISIS for bombing Paris, we would have been duty bound. I find it significant that he didn't quite go that far, because he knew what it implied. You can argue that although Russia has been stripped of its former allies of the Eastern Bloc, it still remains a threat to the West as Putin continues to provoke by his actions. Yet NATO proved incapable of preventing Putin's actions in Ukraine, partly prompted by Ukraine's stated desire to turn away from Russia in favour of the EU and NATO. But the key to the NATO argument is the behaviour of NATO member Turkey. Turkey is following its own agenda in the region. It shot down a Russian fighter. Whether it was correct in law or not, if Turkey had declared itself under attack from Russia, again we would all have been duty bound to jump in and escalate hostilities well beyond the local militias and terrorist groups. Again you may argue that it was only the threat of NATO doing just this that prevented Russia from reacting more strongly to the downing of its fighter. And that may be true, but with Turkey being a loose canon, who is to say that it won't do something else that this time provokes irresistible response from Putin? Turkey also has been aiding ISIS fighters by providing sanctuary across its border and is almost certainly involved in ISIS's trade in oil and other assets that funds their State and continued military activities. Not a very united front or consistency of action on display from NATO here.

David Cameron asserted that there are some 70,000 anti-Assad rebels who could be used to fight ISIS on the ground. This is an utterly absurd notion and frankly a most worrying one if our Prime Minister has the level of understanding to believe this is gospel. Take a look of a map of the various forces in Syria courtesy of BBC

The rebel forces are nowhere near ISIS strongholds except in a couple of areas near Damascus. Plus they are solely concerned with fighting Assad's forces. They are not going to give up that primary aim to turn they efforts against ISIS, unless you first remove Assad and that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon. Also of those 70,000 troops, how many are Jihadists and Islamists? Do you really think the fighters of the Al-Nusra Front are people we want to be dealing with? They are extremists too. I'm curious whether there is any thinking about rewarding the Kurds with an independent Kurdistan as they have been calling and in some cases battling for for years prior to this particular conflict? How would that be received in Turkey I wonder? Turkey regards its Kurds as more of a threat to the state than ISIS

Which leads on to the wider question, of just what is the long-term vision for the area? We have been fed a few clues, that it wouldn't include Assad, that the Islamic State would be dismantled. And what territorial borders would be established? As with so many of the states created out of former Ottoman colonies, the borders created for the likes of Syria and Iraq are somewhat arbitrary and don't reflect the various tribal and ethnic divisions of the populations there. Also there are scant traditions of democracy in the region, so again, how does one go about establishing such a thing from so low a base? Hasn't worked in Libya, is clinging on by its fingertips in Afghanistan... Destroying the Caliphate, which seems to be the one thing all the allies have agreed on, will not remove the threat of islamic terrorism. Instead it will spread it like a virus. As said earlier, they do not need a command and control centre in a specified territorial space. After the insurgency in Iraq was supposedly put down, the insurgents just slipped away and returned to blend in with their fellow citizens until ISIS collected them altogether into a new menacing force. The same is likely to happen again. Also IS is just as much an idea, an aspiration as it is a territorial reality. If I can resort to a crassly inappropriate phrase, it is a genie free from its bottle never to be recaptured. A Caliphate functioning under Sharia law will remain an aspiration for many Muslims and next time it could be in Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia or Yemen. ISIS are currently making great strides in Afghanistan. In Libya. The place does not matter. It will not fade away if this one in Syria and Iraq is destroyed.

1) Bombing Syria makes us less secure here in the UK not more
2) This is not about an abnegation of the responsibility to protect ourselves and relying on others
3) Formal military alliances make it more likely to draw us into full war rather than less
4) There are no 70,000 Syrians on the ground who can take on ISIS
5) There is no plan of what to do if and when ISIS falls
6) The Caliphate as an idea is here to stay and will remain a recruiting tool to the flag beyond the destruction of the Islamic State itself