by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 6 – Issue 3 – Gallimaufry

August 13, 2010 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

TRUE THINGS ABOUT ME

Deborah Kay Davies
CANONGATE, £10.99 PP224 ISBN 9781847678300

True Things About Me is the third book by Deborah Kay Davies, whose debut collection of short stories Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful won the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2009. This novel describes a benefit officer’s obsession with a man who comes into her work.

As a series of short pieces, the book does indeed focus on ‘true things’ about the narrator. Each piece begins with descriptive phrases such as “I Am A One-Trick Pony” or “I Feel Empty Sometimes.” This fragmented structure reflects the narrator’s crumbling mental state. Davies describes a woman swept off her feet by a charismatic, curly-haired stranger. Their lustful and volatile relationship takes over her life. She becomes preoccupied with his whereabouts, his other relationships and his children. Eventually, she loses her job and her own family and friends. The narration is slow, deliberate and contemplative. The absence of names for the narrator and her love interest, as well as the lack of quotation marks, creates an intriguing, distorted reality. Though unrelentingly dark and serious, Davies’ taut writing is captivating. TM

ADAM SMITH: THE LIFE OF AN ENLIGHTENED ECONOMIST

Nicholas Phillipson
ALLEN LANE, £25 PP368 ISBN 9780713993967

As Nicholas Phillipson acknowledges, attempting to write the life of a man as intensely private as Adam Smith is a nigh-on impossible task. The discovery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, of notes made while he was a lecturer at Glasgow University make possible what Phillipson calls an ‘intellectual’ biography. He traces Smith’s mental growth and development, from his early days as a schoolboy in Kirkcaldy, to his entry into Glasgow University at the age of fourteen, his days at Oxford when he began to take on many of David Hume’s ideas, and his return to Glasgow. He saw his philosophy speaking not merely about money but also about the correct way to live life. Phillipson has written a marvellous biography that combines complex philosophical ideas with an approachable writing style, to provide a vital history both for students and for general readers. Smith himself emerges as a focused but not unsympathetic individual, who was not much given to socialising or the buzz and hum of the city whose industry contributed so much to his understanding of economics. LM

FOR SALE, $20,000

Bill Drummond
BEAUTIFUL BOOKS, £8.99 PP155 ISBN 9781905636846

Bill Drummond is a former member of The KLF, conceptual tricksters and sometime pop stars best known for burning a million pounds on Jura. In 1995 he bought a photo and text work by Richard Long and by 1998 he was ‘bored’ with it. He then drove the length of Britain sticking up ‘For Sale’ signs offering the work at its original price. Later he decided that it might be more efficacious (or interesting) to cut Long’s photograph into 20,000 pieces and try to sell each piece for $1. Drummond planned to bury the money at the site where Long’s photograph was taken (a specially created stone circle in Iceland) and take his own photograph. There is a moderately interesting travelogue lurking here, but $20,000 is really a series of observations about contemporary art. Drummond questions the effect of government funding on creativity but not the ability of private resources to bring asinine ideas to life; wants recognition for contemporary art while participating in toe-curling discussions on whether an imaginary $20,000 orange should be the arbiter of its own artistic merit; and searches for new ways of presenting text while writing of the “baron” lands of Caithness. TM

POETS IN A LANDSCAPE

Gilbert Highet
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, £9.99 PP296 ISBN 9781590173381

Gilbert Highet was a Glasgow-born academic who settled in the States when he began teaching at Columbia University in 1937, when he was only 31-years-old. A specialist in Latin and Greek, he became a popular public intellectual figure there, editing and translating many works by some of the best classical authors. First published in 1957, this volume is a labour of love that covers seven classical writers and their relationship with various Italian landscapes. Given the manners of the 1950s, some of his comments about the racier poets can seem coy to us now, and his horror at the selling of Coca-Cola bottles by the Clitumnus springs (“only the charm and quiet of the scene made us forget the profanation”) may draw some readers’ smiles, but his knowledge, and sheer enjoyment, of the work of these poets, makes this a delightful volume. Few of the poets escaped emotional damage by the women they fell in love with, but the motherland was always faithful to them, providing them with scenes of beauty and wonder that defined their work and their ideas. Highet muses on their legacy for twentieth century poets such as Eliot and Pound with sensitivity and feeling. LM

TELL ME WHERE YOU ARE

Moira Forsyth
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 P0735P352 ISBN 978190520

This charming novel by Highland author Moira Forsyth traces the conflicts of a trio of sisters. Youngest sister Gillian Douglas works in the arts in Edinburgh, while oldest sister and single mum Frances looks after her teenage sons in Ross-shire. On Christmas night, Frances receives a surprise visit from niece Kate and ex-husband Alec, who left her for middle sister Susan thirteen years ago. Alec tells them that Susan has mysteriously disappeared. The family feels guilty, having estranged itself from her years ago. For most of the novel, the plot focuses on the infinitely patient Frances, who is left to contend with moody Kate and old feelings of betrayal. The narrative shifts to other members of the family, who believe they see Susan in various Scottish towns, dressed in a red coat. Gradually, this novel about families changes into a thriller as Frances tries to solve the mystery of Susan’s disappearance. Sensitively written, it contains keen characterisation and a strong awareness of the problems facing women today. Though the plot eventually becomes predictable, Forsyth’s pleasant writing takes the reader to the end. TM

YIN YANG TATTOO

Ron McMillan
SANDSTONE PRESS, £7.99 PP320 ISBN 9781905207312

McMillan, a Scots photo-journalist who has spent a large part of his life based in the Far East and who still lives part of the year in Bangkok, has produced the kind of hard-boiled thriller that would normally have attracted the attention of big publishers looking for the next Len Deighton. Perhaps because McMillan’s prose style is a little more demanding than that, they’ve been reluctant to take a risk but they might just have missed a trick here. Photojournalist Alec Brodie, is on his uppers in London.

He accepts a job offer from the President of Korean-based firm K-N Group to take commercial photographs for a new project. I was surprised the world-weary Brodie didn’t smell a rat with this one as the stench was almost overpowering, but perhaps his history with the country and the women he was once involved with there, have been enough to reel him in. An unusual setting with an authentic feel makes for a superior thriller. LM

HIGHLAND COWBOYS: FROM THE HILLS OF SCOTLAND TO THE AMERICAN WILD WEST

Rob Gibson
LUATH PRESS £7.99 PP192 ISBN 9781906307288

This is a fascinating book with an occasionally misleading title. ‘Cowboy’ is broadly defined and Berwickshire-born John Clay, onetime President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and tacit supporter of vigilante action against rustlers, is one of several Lowland Scots who feature here. Gibson ranges across subjects as diverse as the domestication of cattle in the Stone Age, the international growth of the cattle business and the life of R.B. Cunninghame Graham. He’s good on the dual nature of the cowboy-Scot: more inclined to marry indigenous women than other emigrant groups were but involved also in the slaughter of buffalo herds and the Indian reservation system that made large scale ranching possible. There’s also some interesting debate concerning the relative neglect of Scotland’s droving tradition compared to the country’s obsession with cowboy myths. Examples of the latter include Bud Neil’s Lobby Dosser cartoons, the fact that one sixth of Scotland’s population saw the Bill Cody Show in Glasgow in 1891-92 and a photograph of the author as a child-cowboy in Dennistoun. TM

ARENA TWO: ANARCHISTS IN FICTION

Edited by Stuart Christie
CHRISTIE BOOKS, £7.95 PP160 ISBN 9781604862140

This collection of essays about the role of the anarchist in fiction draws from a surprisingly wide selection. David Weir argues that William Godwin’s 1794 anti-hero, Caleb Williams, “feels the effects of the capitalist world”, which in this case means unfair imprisonment and wrongful execution. But he also argues Godwin’s book was a novel of sentiment, which he believes is a key ingredient in anarchist philosophy. One contributor attacks Ernest Hemingway’s “patronising” attitude to anarchists in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Another claims Louise Michel, a Paris-based teacher and anarchist, actually wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea; when she couldn’t finish it, passed it on to Jules Verne who duly took the credit. The central question is whether this is a volume speaking to the converted, or is seeking to broaden its appeal and educate the rest of us about what anarchism means. Given essays such as Stephen Schwartz’s provocative review of the late Roberto Bolano’s fiction (“a colossal parody of the Latin American literary ‘boom’ and particularly of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez”), I would say it falls into the latter category. A worthy enterprise, then, and an interesting one. LM

THE NOCTURNAL LIBRARY

Ermano Cavazzoni
VAGABOND VOICES, £12.99PP253 ISBN 9780956056054

First published in Italian almost a decade ago, Cavazzoni’s first novel was made into Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon. Interested in the macabre, Cavazzoni himself characterises his novels as “outpourings of the maniacal”. This novel’s chaotic plot will delight and frustrate readers in equal measure. A student named Jerome is tense about an important exam on the horizon. In a dream, he enters an all-night library to study. Everyone is dressed in pyjamas and chickens walk across the tables. Pranksters slip insects into the sleeping reader’s mouths. Throughout the night, Jerome cannot find the books on modern philosophy he’s searching for; however he does meet other test-takers and insomnia-sufferers. The narrative vacillates between monologues by the eccentric characters and descriptions of the library’s peculiar occurrences. Though Cavazzoni accurately captures the bizarre and impulsive nature of dreams, it will take a patient reader to sift through the novel’s strange plot. TM

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