Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A book for the beach / The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

A book for the beach

The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

Wily but decent, this detective is more concerned with the human characters around him than simple crime-solving
Tim Maby
Sunday 10 August 2014 15.00 BST

Andrea Camilleri

Where better to find your perfect beach for reading than Sicily? It has miles of soft sand, gently sloping out to sea for easy swimming, as Inspector Montalbano does every day. I know this even though I have never been there, because I first came to this local detective through the admirable RAI television series, currently getting another run on BBC4.
The TV version – and there's a Young Montalbano series as well – is a softer man than in the books, rather sexy and constantly propositioned by the most elegant women. Camilleri's original character is frequently bad-tempered, and gauche with the opposite sex, however often aroused. He is an archetypal chauvinist male, terrified of being trapped into marriage by his long-term lover Livia. He is more frequently drawn to delicious Sicilian food than sex. It is only after a meal in a small trattoria that he generally speaks of "heaven".

Montalbano's great appeal is his understanding of the rich Rabelaisian characters among his people. Signora Cosentino, for instance, is "an irresistibly likeable balloon with a mustache".
The opportunity to observe and get involved is what drives him. Although his success is said to have made him famous, the last thing he wants is promotion, which might take him away from frontline policing, as he frequently moans to his boss. He is surly with any superior for whom he has no respect. In The Snack Thief he actually terrorises and near beats up an anti-terrorist squad colonel. But his relationship with his own team is as a "band of brothers". So when Sergeant Fazio interprets what to do when left without instructions:
"'I figured out what it was you wanted me to do, and I did it'. Montalbano felt moved, This was real friendship, Sicilian friendship, the kind based on intuition, on what was left unsaid. With a true friend, one never needs to ask, because the other understands on his own and acts accordingly."
One surprise to me was that he is consistently kind to immigrants, as much as the innocent unfortunate. But then Sicily, home to the mafia and male chauvinism, has been forgiving to the boatloads of north African immigrants reaching their shores. Montalbano is gentle with the African prostitute and almost treats the elderly refugee Aisha as if she were his aunt.

The plotting is characteristically convoluted. It starts simply with the murder of a middle-aged businessman in the lift of his apartment block. But it turns out his Tunisian cleaner – who also sold him sex – has gone missing. Enter a new element, the death of supposed Tunisian sailor at sea, shot by the Tunisian navy while on an Italian fishing boat. It turns out he was the cleaner's brother, and was actually a terrorist on the run. And then there's the boy, her son – he is the snack thief of the title, because he has had to live in hiding after his mother disappeared and has been mugging school-kids for their lunches. It has a touch of Midsomer Murders about it, in the way the author uses very ordinary elements of rural life to tell an unusual story.
What makes Camilleri stand out from simplistic whodunnits, let alone commonplace police procedurals, is that Montalbano does not always bring criminals to justice. If he does, Camilleri frequently sidelines it.
So, in The Snack Thief, the final arrest of a woman for murdering her husband is only briefly mentioned. The story concentrates on how Montalbano saves a Tunisian boy after his mother is murdered and wangles the system, including acquiring her illegal gains, to provide for the boy's future. Another murder by the security services he hardly bothers to conclude.
Montalbano is a bit like Simenon's Maigret in his sense of decency and justice. He has to work within a society dominated by the mafia, corrupt politicians and self-serving bureaucrats. He cannot hope to defeat them outright, but schemes to achieve his ends by outflanking them.
However even he has to admit that his manipulation of events, using his power as a policeman, can go too far. The innocent still get killed, like Aisha. In his first book The Shape of Water, he knowingly leaves a gun for a deranged young man to kill a crooked lawyer. After that he has to agree with his beloved Livia, that he tried too hard to "be God", but is actually only "second-rate".

Love from Boy / Roald Dahl's Letters to his Mother / Digested read

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to his Mother – digested read

‘Dear Mama, I’ve left the RAF now, and am best friends with Walt Disney, Roosevelt, Spencer Tracy and Hemingway’

John Crace
Sunday 12 June 2016 17.00 BST

ear Mama, I am writing this letter to thank you for sending me to St Peter’s. It is a lovely boarding school (1). Yesterday Binks minor got a bit of a cold and had to be taken off to the school sanatorium but he is OK now (2). Please will you buy me a monkey from Harrods? PS: All my warts have disappeared.

Repton is a great school. Possibly the most topping school that ever existed (3). I am doing tremendously well and am very popular with the other boys. My umbrella is working very well and I took some interesting photographs of a spider I squashed. The teachers are all very nice especially Crummers (4) and it was a bit of a shame that the Priory burned down. Still, at least no one got hurt (5), though Michael did have a mental breakdown (6). Several members of the school have got scarlet fever but have now recovered. Thank you for sending me a motorbike in the post. I promise to ride it very carefully.

Canada was very dull. It was full of trees and mountains and not at all like Norway (7). I am very pleased to have got a job with Shell as it means I can play golf every other weekend. I really feel my life is going somewhere. I am now being posted to Tanganyika in Africa, so I suspect I will have to spend a long time on a boat getting there (8). I am now in Tanganiyka and having a lot of fun. In the daytime, I sit in an office doing things with bits of paper and in the evening we get hideously drunk and throw darts at photographs of Mr Hitler (9). Boo to Mr Hitler! He really doesn’t sound at all nice. I got malaria last week but am much better now.
Now that war has broken out, I have decided to go to Kenya to train as a pilot. Flying is very fun and yesterday afternoon I had a shit in a jerry-can. I’m sorry I have not written for a while, but my plane crashed and I got a fearful bump on the head (10). Luckily, I was able to pull myself out of the wreckage and, after a couple of days in hospital, I was quite all right (11). I expect to be able to rejoin my squadron next week.
As you probably know, having seen me in England last month, I have now decided not to be a pilot any more and have been sent to Washington to work in the embassy. I am having a marvellous time in America and have just written my first short story. It has been tremendously well received (12). I am now best friends with Walt Disney, President Roosevelt, Spencer Tracy and Ernest Hemingway and everyone at the embassy thinks I am absolutely brilliant (13).
I am sorry that I didn’t keep any of the letters you sent me, and that I basically stopped writing to you in 1945 – as otherwise I might have been able to tell you about some of the most interesting bits of my life. You would probably like to have known more about my marriage to Patricia Neal, the tragedies that befell our family and how I became a bestselling writer. But it’s probably just as well that you died in 1965 and never had to read the many biographies of me that reveal I was basically a bit of a womanising bastard. Love from Roald.

Editor’s notes

  1. St Peter’s was a terrible school and Dahl hated every minute.
  2. Sadly, Binks minor died.
  3. Dahl was bullied mercilessly at Repton.
  4. Crummers may or may not have been the basis for the headmaster in one of his novels.
  5. They all died.
  6. Michael was expelled for homosexuality.
  7. Canada was exactly like Norway.
  8. One of the few parts of his letters that was true.
  9. Nazi leader who started the second world war.
  10. The plane didn’t crash – Dahl crashed it and was very badly injured.
  11. Dahl didn’t save himself. Another pilot pulled him out of the wreckage.
  12. Another part of the letters that is actually true.
  13. They didn’t. Everyone hated him for being a name-dropping know-all.
Digested read, digested: His first works of fiction.

Portrait of the artist / Philip Glass / Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist

Philip Glass

Portrait of the artist 

Philip Glass


Philip Glass talks about the stars he'd like to work with, the price of fame and why an artist has to be true to himself

"Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist."

Interview by Laura Barnett
Tuesday 13 August 2013 19.15 BST

Philip Glass

What first drew you to music?

I can hardly remember: I was playing by the time I was six, and performing by 10. There was no question about whether I would be a musician – I already was a musician. The only question was where I would study, and who I would study with.
What was your big breakthrough?

There isn't one break, there's a series of breaks, and they go on for a long time. At 20, I was writing music for dance and theatre companies (1); from there, things continued to happen. Eventually, all these dots line up and become a life in music.
I hear you dislike the term "minimalist" (2). Should composers resist such labels?

It's not that I dislike the term – it was accurate for 10 years, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. But you have to realise that no one's written "minimalist" music in 30 years: it's like people talking about impressionism when nobody's painting like that any more. Young composers are writing wonderful new music that we don't even have a name for yet.
Where do you seek inspiration?

In stories, images, movement – if I'm working with a dance company, I actually go and watch the dancers; I don't think many composers do that. And within the world of music, from a great master of another tradition. I was Ravi Shankar's assistant in the 60s (3), and his ideas about the language of music had a tremendous effect on my writing.
Do you care about fame?

It's a complete pain in the neck. Someone always says, "I don't want to bother you, but …" and then the bothering begins. But it's not as bad for me as for some. I've been walking down the street with Paul Simon (4) and almost been accosted by fans. And I have a very famous actor friend who can't even leave her house.

You've collaborated with some huge artists (5). Who would you still like to work with?

I've been talking to Bill Viola, the video artist, for a year or two; and Ornette Coleman and I have had a project under discussion for 20 years. There's just not enough time in the world to do everything you want to do.

Philip Glass: 'A paper ran the headline "Glass invents new sonic torture". That was funny.'
Photograph by Estela Silva

You're incredibly prolific (6): what's your secret?

I've always just worked hard. I didn't make a living until I was in my 40s – I did construction work, moved furniture, anything. Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist. We do it on our own, and we take our chances.
What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?

In the 1970s, a paper ran the headline "Glass invents new sonic torture". I saved that one – I thought it was very funny.
What advice would you give a young composer?

I have one word for them: "independence". When I was a kid, people threw things at me, or shouted and screamed, to disrupt my concerts. But I've always gone ahead and done what I wanted to do without paying much attention to anybody.
The Philip Glass Ensemble perform Music in 12 Parts at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 9 November.


Born: Baltimore, 1937.
Career: Has composed extensively since the 1950s, for opera, film, dance companies and with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Operas include Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha; film soundtracks include The Hours and Kundun.
High point: "Some wonderful performances in London at the English National Opera."
Low point: "Not winning an Oscar for The Hours."


(1) Glass has worked with major choreographers and dancers including Lucinda Childs – with whom he created the 1979 work DANCE – and Twyla Tharp.
(2) He is widely reputed to prefer the term "music with repetitive structures".
(3) Their best-known recording together, Passages, came later in 1990.
(5) Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, David Bowie and more.
(6) His website lists several works for almost every letter of the alphabet.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young / Digested read

The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young – digested read

‘Every summer we would have a sports day, as cows are very athletic. One 
year, Bob the Bull twisted his ankle while jumping over the moon’

John Crace
Sunday 10 December 2017 17.00 GMT

y family started rearing cattle in 1953 and since that time I have become a close observer of how cows like to behave. Take Harriet. Harriet was the best-natured cow you could hope to meet, but if you tried to take her out of her barn between 7.00 and 7.15 in the evening when The Archers was on Radio 4 she would kick up rough. She hated that Rob Titchenerfrom the off, which shows you that cows can be very good judges of character.

From the very beginning, we decided to let the cows choose how they wanted to be reared. They were all given a questionnaire and those that said they preferred to be intensively farmed and force-fed antibiotics were sent away, while those that wanted an easier life with fresh grass and central heating were allowed to stay. As a result, many of the cows have become close friends and are invited into the house on Christmas Day for lunch.
Some cows are quite stupid, but some are very intelligent. Jake was a charming Charolais calf who was normally very even-tempered. But over the course of one week, I began to notice he was showing signs of distress and wandering round in circles in the field. Then I realised he was actually a bit bored and needed stimulation. So I bought him a Rubik’s cube and he was happy as Larry. Larry was an old bull, who when he wasn’t shagging, liked nothing more than to stand by the rail track and tick off the numbers as the trains went by.

At tea-time, all the herd used to like to come indoors. Apart from Dolly. Dolly would stay out in the field looking miserable. We would try to coax her in but every time she would just dig her heels in. It slowly dawned on me that Dolly was sulking because her former best friend, Nelly, had stopped talking to her and had taken to hanging out with a young heifer called Fat Karen. So I explained to Dolly that friendship groups can change as young cows can be fickle and that she should try being nice to Billy No Mates instead. From then on Dolly and Billy No Mates became inseparable.
Not all cows turn out to be as nice as you hope. Although Nigel had the best possible start in life – his mother, Abigail, udder-fed him the sweetest milk up until the age of nine months – he quickly turned out to be a pain in the neck. Nigel would spend all day standing by the gate, swilling gallons of ale, smoking fags and abusing foreigners. In the end, we had to get rid of him as none of the others could bear him.

Every summer we would have a sports day, as many cows are surprisingly athletic. These events could turn out to be very competitive and one year Bob the Bull was absolutely gutted at having to withdraw from the high jump after twisting his ankle when jumping over the moon. To help him recover from his disappointment we entered him for the three-legged race instead. Sadly, Bob lost that race by a nose and was last seen eating magic mushrooms in the top meadow.
Calves that are born in cramped conditions and separated from their mothers at an early age are far more stressed than those that have a natural birth. Whenever our cows get pregnant, we encourage then to sign up for National Calfbirth Trust courses so that they can share their worries with other mothers and get advice on how best to look after their young.
Now seems to be a good moment to tell you a little bit about pigs, sheep and turkeys. Though many pigs can be quite intelligent, some are really thick. The same goes for sheep. Turkeys can be a lot of fun if you let them drive the tractor, but you do need to keep an eye on them in December as they have a habit of making themselves scarce.
A last word on cows. A well-bred cow that has been treated well will usually be unfailingly polite. Most are charming at their moment of departure and make a point of saying goodbye and thank you for all that I have done for them. Though you do get the odd one who kicks up a stink when you take him to the abattoir and starts mooing: “Why are you going to put a bolt through my head, you sadistic, two-faced motherfucker?”
Digested read, digested: Holy cow

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 / Digested read

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 – digested read

‘Saw Harold who showed me The Birthday Party. Suggested a couple of places where the pauses could be longer’

John Crace
Sunday 25 September 2016 17.00 BST

Ussy, Paris, Berlin, Tunisia
Dear Whoever,
Thank you for your letter of whenever.
Giacometti dead. George Devine dead. Yes, drive me to Père Lachaise and go straight through the red lights.
Still alive. Just.
Thank you for the book you sent me that I will read later.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.
The work has run aground. From the wreckage I’ve rescued barely a thousand words in a pitiable state. All the verbs have died. Apart from the ones I’ve just used.
My eyesight is getting worse and I can now barely walk. I am not long for this world. No great loss.
Thank you for your letter. I have no idea how the Nobel works. I’m pleased you feel I am deserving but I have no appetite for such an honour. Knowing my luck, I might still be alive by the time they get round to giving it to me.
I have read Nick’s poems. They aren’t very good, but he’s so impoverished I dare say an endorsement would cheer him up.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.

Illustration by Matt Blease

Thank you for your letter. I know little about Strindberg’s plays and do not think I have been influenced by them.
Eh Joe went well in London. Siân Phillips adequate. Relatively pleased with the result. Please not Cusack. The National Theatre wants to put on All That Fall with Olivier and Plowright. It has to be no there too.

Saw Harold who showed me The Birthday Party. Suggested a couple of places where the pauses could be longer.
Still standing, though stooped. Surprised myself by waking up.
End of mother very distressing. We buried her somewhere. Glad I came though doubt I shall return to Ireland again.
So sorry to hear that you have died. It won’t be long before I fall over the abyss and join you.
Declined Harvard. Couldn’t face it.
Declined Oxford. Couldn’t face it.
Been coughing my guts up and have abscess on my lung. The doctor insists that smoking will kill me. I’m waiting. I’m still waiting.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.
Have finally written a breath play. Curtain. 1. Faint line shines on pile of rubbish on stage for five seconds. 2. Faint brief cry and immediate inhalation for 10 seconds while light increases. 3. Exhalation and diminishing light for 10 seconds. 4. Silence for 87 minutes. Curtain.
I read La Nausée once but it was not in my thinking when I wrote Watt.
Please accept my apologies for not having replied sooner. Please convey my thanks to the Nobel committee and inform them that I will not be able to attend the ceremony in Stockholm as I am on holiday in Tunisia. Please also ask them to send the cheque to someone else.
Up and down here. Some of my friends are still alive and some of them aren’t. When last I checked I was still breathing shallowly.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.

Have returned from Berlin where I have been rehearsing Godot. P&L insist on coming on stage from the wrong side. The tree has too many leaves on it.
Thank you for your invitation to Mexico. I am sorry I have replied so late that the premiere has now already taken place.
Have tried to translate Molloy. Can’t make head or tail of it.
Just finished Not I. Can’t make head nor tail of that either.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.
Glad you are still keeping going. It’s all over for me. Thank you for the book which I can’t read as my sight is now too poor. The doctor suggests I wear glasses. Charlatan.

I have been trying to write a short play. Nothing so far.

Thank you for your letter. If there is any affinity between Queneau’s work and mine it is entirely coincidental.
I am sorry to hear you are dying. If it’s any consolation I am too. I am sorry I have nothing to offer you by way of a play. Not even a discredited unpublished work. My time is up.
I have written one last play. S = silence. V = Voice. S. Faintly audible. V. No. S. Slightly more audible. V. No. S. Slightly more audible still. V. No. Curtain.
I regret I must decline your interview request as I have nothing to say.
I fell over. Managed to get up. Just. I’m sorry I can’t help with your problems. I suspect you, like me, prefer them to be insoluble.
Pen to paper is a long howl these days. Even the simplest words. I am dying. No really. I am this time. It is the Endgame. I am dead.
Affectionately, Sam
Digested read, digested: Sam’s Last Tape.

The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese / Digested read

The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese – digested read

‘Gerald and I looked through the vents and saw a male having intercourse. I noted that Gerald ejaculated at 7.51pm’

John Crace

Sunday 24 July 2016 17.00 BST

I know a married man with two children who bought a 21-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. I first became aware of this individual in 1980 when my valet handed me a letter that had been sent to my $5m home in New York.
Dear Mr Talese, as the author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the brilliantly written exploration of American sexual mores that has now been in the bestseller lists for over six months, I thought you might like to know about my adventures as a Peeping Tom. Yours, Anonymous.
For several days, I left this letter to one side as I had more important matters to attend to, namely designing the monogram for my blazer. Since my correspondent refused to be named, I felt there was little to be gained from meeting him as my deservedly award-winning non-fiction had always been predicated on full disclosure. And yet I had to concede that his letter was not without merit as it did acknowledge me as the finest living writer of my generation. So I replied, using my Montblanc fountain pen, that I would meet him at baggage reclaim 4 at Phoenix airport, at some point in the future when I had finished my nationwide tour promoting yet another of my brilliant books.

He was sat on a pale tangerine banquette near baggage reclaim 5 when I arrived in Phoenix shortly after four in the afternoon of 23rd January. After I rebuked him for his impertinence in waiting in the wrong place, thereby delaying me for at least 12 seconds, he lead me out to his highly polished black Cadillac sedan. “Good day,” he said, as the sun beat down from what I recall was a deep-azure sky. “My name is Gerald Foos.”
Gerald, as he preferred to be called, introduced me to his wife Donna, whom he assured me was highly approving of his voyeurism, which he insisted was an important social history of the sexual activities of his motel guests. Gerald and Donna took me up to the secret attic from which they could spy on their guests though the vents. “Look down there,” he said. I leant forward to observe a white male of about 195lb having intercourse with a slight woman of Spanish descent with thick black pubic hair. As I leant further forward, my silk Ralph Lauren tie slipped through the vent: Gerald pulled me back, lest our voyeurism became public, before continuing to masturbate. I made a note that Gerald had ejaculated at precisely 7.51pm.
On my return to my New York home that had appreciated in value by $145 in my absence, Gerald began to send me weekly instalments from his meticulously observed notes.
“A short fat man urinates in the sink while his wife is out. On her return, she performs fellatio on his below-average-size penis. He then mounts her in the male superior position and thrusts forcefully for about five minutes before climaxing. The woman does not appear to climax. Conclusion: this couple have a serviceable, if not particularly joyful, union. The rather small amount of semen the man ejaculates suggests he is a frequent masturbator.”

To my surprise, I sense there is some nobility in Gerald’s enterprise and I recall a book written by a professor who is not quite so brilliant as me, in which Victorian sexual activity was explored through the prism of voyeurism. I ask Gerald to send further extracts of his diary.
“There is no moral problem with voyeurism because the people being watched don’t know they are being watched so they can’t be hurt. I find this immensely reassuring when some of my own semen slips through the vent on to the face of a well-built brunette woman who has just swallowed the semen of a slight Caucasian man of about 157lb. I also observe a man strangling a woman and feel a bit guilty about not reporting it, though am aware that doing so would compromise my objectivity.”

At some point, it becomes clear to me that Gerald’s diary actually begins three years before he bought the motel, but I am inclined to treat this as an administrational error on Gerald’s part. In 2013, Gerald, who is now in his 80s, rings up to say that the motel has been knocked down and he is now happy for me to publish a book about him using his real name.
I agree, though the extract about the killing still bothers me. I ring up the Denver police department, who inform me they have no record of any homicide at the motel. The incompetence of the Denver police, in not responding to a crime that definitely took place, is breathtaking. At some point I might write an award-winning book about them. For now, though, satisfied that my own extensive research is complete, I decide to publish the most important work of non-fictional fictional bollocks ever in the history of non-fictional fictional bollocks.
Digested read, digested: Foos’ gold.