Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Satire (page 1 of 5)

It’s a Shiny Christmas


Just to tell you that the Shiny New Books Christmas Extra Shiny edition is now online with 34 new reviews and articles for your delectation. There’s a bit of an ‘Oscar-Fest’ (Wilde that is) going on here here and here, plus a wide variety of other book in the mix.

I’ve contributed five pieces to this edition:

  • spectaclesNumber 11 by Jonathan Coe – a brilliant social satire about 21st century living and the economy
  • The Winter Place by Alexander Yates – an excellent YA novel that incorporates Finnish folklore into a contemporary tale of New York teens’ grief and going to live with the Finnish grandparents they never knew existed.
  • A Lion Was Learning to Ski by Ranjit Bolt – a book of read out loud limericks from the playwright/translator.
  • Spectacles by Sue Perkins – a fun but also thoughtful memoir from the Sue we know and love from GBBO.  Wonderful cover too!
  • The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs & Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus. Not one, but two books, by one of the best writers about popular music.


Money by Martin Amis

MoneySo, earlier in the summer we were picking a book to discuss at book group and someone suggested The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. He’s an author we’ve not read in the group before but that title didn’t appeal; individually we’d read a few of his books, but no-one had read Money, so it sort of chose itself.

Having read London Fields, which followed Money, I had an inkling of what the earlier Amis novels were like, but Money was just so in-yer-face the whole way through, so intensely early 1980s (it was published in 1984), that I hated it, but I loved it too. The 1980s framed my twenties and I can clearly remember the excess – everyone else’s that is!

What did our book group think?  Only me and one other finished it, everyone else didn’t bother, abandoned it or hadn’t finished it, most declaring it so sordid – a verdict with which I wouldn’t disagree, but I sort of really enjoyed reading it. Let me introduce the book:

John Self, a successful yet controversial director of raunchy TV commercials, is making the move into movies. Half American, yet of humble origins in the UK, he has managed to get somewhere without the benefit of a university education. He’s enjoying going back to New York to get a film to be called Good Money into development – he’s a transatlantic man. As the book starts, he’s arrived in NYC:

The mirror looked on, quite unimpressed, as I completed a series of rethinks in the hired glare of the windowless bathroom. I cleaned my teeth, combed my rug, clipped my nails, bathed my eyes, gargled, showered, shaved, changed – and still looked like shit. Jesus, I’m so fat these days. I tell you, I appal myself in the tub and on the can. I sit slumped on the ox-collar seat like a clutch of plumbing, the winded boiler of a thrashed old tramp. How did it happen? It can’t just be all the booze and quick food I put away. I must have been pencilled in for this a long time ago. …. Can money fix it? (p5)

John Self is a man of excess. Success has brought him money and he spends it like water and he is obsessed by money.  He has his flat in London and his beloved ‘Fiasco’ sports car. He fuels his life with booze, pills, porn and handjobs (he always prefers to get someone to do that for him).  He has everything except love – although his on-off girlfriend Selina says she loves him, what she really wants is a joint bank account. Self is so addicted to his excessive and sordid lifestyle that you read the book waiting for a heart attack to happen, it is subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’ after all.

The novel follows Self as he travels between London and New York. When he’s in the USA, he feels totally at home liaising with producer Fielding Goodney raising the money to finance the film and then later casting it, living out of a suitcase in his hotel and frequenting clubs and brothels.  When he goes back to the UK, he’s concerned with trying to round up all the money everyone there seems to owe him, including his father Barry.

Absolutely everyone in this book has an agenda, everyone is after the money – except maybe two people – the naive leading man, Spunk Davis (his name being intentionally challenging), and the author himself…

The essential character of Self is obviously autobiographical in a satirical way, and the choice of ‘John’ shows he could be anyone, but Amis goes a bit meta and introduces himself, or another better version of himself into the narrative.  Self is in the pub in London, waiting for Selina:

I was just sitting there, not stirring, not even breathing, like the pub’s pet reptile, when who should sit down opposite me but that guy Martin Amis, the writer. He had a glass of wine, and a cigarette – also a book, a paperback. It looked quite serious. So did he, in a way. Small, compact, wears his rug fairly long . . .

I was feeling friendly, as I say, so I yawned, sipped my drink, and whispered, ‘Sold a million yet?’ (p87)

Self enlists Amis’s help in rewriting the script, and Amis pops up now and then, to appear like a good luck charm for Self doctoring the script to get around all the obstacles the film’s would-be stars are putting in the way.  It all feels quite an ego-trip for author Amis, but you have to remember this novel was published in 1984 – it was Amis’s third novel and his star was in the ascendancy. Putting a sanitised version of himself into the novel complements the debauched Self.

What I hadn’t realised though, until after reading the novel, was that it was a written as a response to Amis’s own experience in moviedom as the scriptwriter of the (awful) SF movie Saturn 3, (1980), which starred Farrah Fawcett-Major with her famous haircut, and Kirk Douglas.  Apparently the ageing star of Self’s film, Lorne Guyland, is based on Douglas.

Real Amis has great fun in this novel – there are masses of self-contained jokes – mostly you have to read the book to get them. But, the character names are hilarious – obviously the aforementioned Spunk, the scene where Self tries to persude him to change his name for the international market is brilliant.  There are also: a temptress called Butch Beausoleil, a lesbian writer called Doris Arthur and a Nigerian writer named Fenton Akimbo, just to mention a few.  Even Selina’s surname has layers of meaning – Street – from streetwise everywoman, to glorified streetwalker.

I was constantly amused by Amis’s choice of the word ‘rug’ for hair. I’d always associated ‘rugs’ with ‘syrups’ (syrup of figs – wigs), and wondered if it was a misunderstood term by the US-born Self. (Partridge confirms that ‘rug’ was Australian slang for a toupee, dating from the 1940s; the Urban dictionary differs – referring now to women’s pubes!)

I can’t tell you what happens – but you can imagine that Self is increasingly consumed by his orgy of excess, and the film’s finances require more and more money and it all escalates to a climax. Oh dear, all this sordidness is rubbing off – time to draw this post to a close. Does anyone make it out the other side?

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed this book, which had some dazzling writing in it and the early 1980s were portrayed in all their glorious awfulness. I had been ready to hate it, but ended up feeling sorry for John Self.  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

Martin Amis, Money (1984), Vintage paperback, 400 pages.

A Japanese Nightmare…

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothumb

Translated by Adriana Hunter

fear and tremblingThis unsettling novella has an apt title. When I looked it up to see where it might have come from, I found a bible quote (also the source for a work by Kirkegaard):

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Philippians 2:12

Further investigation revealed that it also refers to the old Japanese protocol that you should look upon the Emperor with fear and trembling to show your reverence. Until 1947, the Japanese Emperor was considered a living god. The line of legendary Japanese emperors goes back to 660 BC, although the first one who probably actually existed ruled from 97-30BC, so precedes Paul’s letter to the Philippians…

Nothumb’s story is not about emperors or gods however, hers is a satire about office mandarins and the politics of the workplace in Japan of the late 1990s.

Nothumb is Belgian, and her father was the Belgian ambassador to Japan. They lived there for several years when she was small, moving on to China, like the heroine of her story, also called Amélie who is returning to Japan for a year to work (as Nothumb did too). As a young Western woman she is lucky to get a job in a large Japanese import-export company, Yumimoto, she is hired for her ability to speak Japanese.

On day one, she has the chain of command explained to her – from Vice President Mr Hameda at the very top down through another two levels to her immediate superior, Fubuki Mori, one of the few women employees. Then comes Amélie, right at the bottom of the food chain.

Her first task is to write a letter for one of the bosses accepting a golf date with a supplier. Giving a flavour of what is to come, he just rips up each draft. One of her jobs is to bring tea and coffee to the workers, and one day she has to bring coffee to a meeting in Mister Omochi’s office. She serves it to the visitors with discrete greetings in perfect Japanese.  Later all hell breaks loose, and Mister Saito (between Mister Omochi and Fubuki) has to tell her off:

“… Mister Omochi is very angry. You created the most appalling tension in the meeting this morning. How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese.”

I was dumbfounded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You no longer know how to speak Japanese. Is this clear?”

“But – it was because of my knowledge of your language that I was hired by Yumimoto!”

“That doesn’t matter. I am ordering you not to understand Japanese any more.”

“That’s impossible. No one could obey an order like that.”

“There is always a means of obeying. That’s what Western brains need to understand.”

Instead of quitting, she carries on. Given nothing meaningful to do she shows initiative – memorising the list of employees names and details she starts delivering the mail each morning – only to discover she has upset the mail boy who comes in the afternoon who was now worried for his job. Bawled out again, she is given a huge photocopying job to do, but the boss is never satisfied the copies are straight – she repeats and repeats it – only to find that it’s the rules for his golf club.

All along, she thinks she has an ally in Fubuki, the beautiful and serene woman who sits opposite her. Of course, Fubuki is jealous of this Western girl when she herself has taken nine years to get to one step above Amélie. Fubuki gets her cross-checking employee expenses, but Amélie proves incapable of using a calculator (this annoyed me!) and Fubuki has to take it back. However, when a boss from another department secretly borrows Amélie to help with a report on Belgian goods, guess who dobs her in to Mister Omochi? Amélie still have seven months left to go on her contract, she will not quit and lose face. The only job left for her is to clean the toilets – and even that comes with its problems in this honour-bound society…

Until we got to the toilet cleaning I was enjoying this story. With its depiction of a department ruled by alpha males stuck into a rigid pecking order, workplace bullying and glass ceiling firmly in place, it reminded me of Helen DeWitt’s brilliant satire Lightning Rods (which I reviewed here).  However, in DeWitt’s witty office fantasy, the women are ultimately able to play the men at their own game which maintained the plot in a full-length novel, whereas Fear and Trembling started to peter out half way through its 132 pages becoming less witty and fresh.

Arguably, having worked in a Japanese office, Nothumb is qualified to comment in her fiction on her experiences there, however it did make me feel rather uncomfortable.  First published in French in 1999, and English translation in 2001, it won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1999. However, its depiction of Western stereotypes of Japanese office-life do sit a little uneasily – and given that she calls her protagonist Amélie and builds in elements from her own experience it is hard to know where the satire begins and ends. However much of it is based on real-life, I hope that things have moved on some nowadays.

Having previously read another of Nothumb’s novellas, The Book of Proper Names reviewed here, which was an absurdist ugly duckling tale, I was looking forward to reading this one. I was slightly disappointed by Fear and Trembling, but I am still keen to read more by France’s ‘literary lioness’ as Nothumb is often monickered. (6.5/10)

witmonth15* * * * *

Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Fear and Tremblingby Amélie Nothumb, trans Adriana Hunter. Faber, paperback, 132 pages.

This novel is buzzing!

The Hive by Gill Hornby

hiveIt must have been quite daunting for Gill Hornby to publish her first novel – for she is the sister of the more famous Nick, and wife of best-selling author Robert Harris.  Now The Hive is out in paperback, she must be getting fed up of these facts being mentioned, as its a best-seller of her very own.

In The Hive, Hornby takes on female cliques of a particular kind – Mums of primary school aged children and the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) which fundraises for their schools. It’s a satire, but it’s also oh-so-close-to-the-truth!

I’ve done my stints on the PTA: at my daughter’s old school I was variously Secretary, Treasurer, Quizmaster, Fireworks supremo, Form Rep – you name it, I did it and I loved it, and I can honestly say that as a committee, we always got on brilliantly and worked as a team, managing to raise lots of money and have fun, (well, mostly!). The hardest part of doing anything was getting helpers on the night for things – even for just half an hour – putting out tables, chairs, clearing up, directing parking etc. (and selling tickets for anything to the teachers!) Now she’s at senior school, and fundraising is limited to a couple of annual events, so I’m having a rest from being on that kind of committee. Been there, done that…

It’s the start of a new year at St Ambrose, a C of E primary school. New year, new headmaster too; Mr Orchard has plans. Meanwhile, in the playground Bea is making an announcement…

‘I have been asked…’ she paused, ‘by the new head …’ the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, ‘to pick a team.’ She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was the tallest of them all by far.
Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the pre-fab classroom, looked on and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What was Bea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the tree and clustered around. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with little choice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this one out, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would wait here. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

Except that Bea doesn’t ask Rachel. She walks off without her, and Rachel realises that not only has she not seen Bea during the summer holidays, that she hasn’t seen her since Rachel’s husband Chris walked off leaving her for a younger model.

When Bea’s fundraising committee meets, they find a willing volunteer in Heather to be the secretary and she takes copious minutes. Bea makes herself chairperson and doesn’t even let the Headmaster get a word in edgeways about what he’d like them to fundraise for. Separate from the Parents Association (PASTA) They are to call themselves COSTA – the Committee of St Ambrose, and will host a lunch ladder, gourmet gamble raffle and a car-boot sale. It’s not long before Bea’s feathers are ruffled though for in a subsequent meeting newbie Deborah, who likes to be called Bubba, offers to host a ball in her garden…

Rachel finds herself partly happy, partly annoyed about her exclusion. Although Rachel walks to school with Heather and their daughters, Heather worships Bea and isn’t her best source of information, but she can rely on Georgie to update her. You can imagine the oneupmanship that’s going to ensue: Bea doesn’t want the ball to be a success, Heather’s tendency to micro-manage gets ever more irritating, events become invitation only, the headmaster is single, and in thus in need of a good woman … and so it goes on.

The novel is mostly seen from Rachel’s point of view and I could sympathise with her having to get to grips with being newly single again. My favourite character, however, was Georgie. She’s given up work to be a full-time mum and is happiest with a baby at her hip. She lives in domestic squalor on a farm and is totally in love with her husband and he with her. Their kitchen is perennially untidy and muddy, but she can whip up a healthy meal in minutes with home-grown produce. Georgie is very straight-talking, and always diving out for a fag break as an excuse to avoid boredom.

It’s not all fun and games though. As with any group of families thrust together by circumstances, there will be friendships made and broken, issues to deal with like bullying between their kids, and occasionally tragedy and illness. Although the story is a broad comedy for the most part, Hornby does bring suitable gravitas to the serious bits, before diving back in to make fun of some of the others’ reactions to them.

The dialogue can be hilarious. She captures that tendency of a clique of women who all carry on their own conversations at the same time, while not really listening to anything anyone else is saying well. All the stereotypes of mum are present and correct and their fawning over Bea is almost sickening – vying to take their turns to collect Bea’s children when Bea announces that she now has a ‘job’.  Rachel is a bit weak, but I can understand her stasis having been through it myself.

The bee analogy works well for this group. The queen bee and her faithful workers, who will eventually decide that the queen is past it and cultivate a new leader. Hornby works the bee theory in rather too obviously though a) by making Rachel’s mother a beekeeper, and b) you’ll also either like or loathe the character names – Bea, Heather, Clover, Melissa and of course Mr Orchard… I was of the like persuasion in this case.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s novels – which tend to look at life mostly from a male perspective.  His sister has given us the female one – it’s overdone, but the premise is great and I enjoyed reading it for the most part. Newly out in paperback, this is an undemanding summer read. (6.5/10)

I’d just like to finish by saying that all schools need volunteers to help in many ways from running events and fundraising to helping out on school trips. I found it a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to get as involved as I did – any help is always appreciated – and real life at the school gates is, in my experience, much nicer than this.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Hiveby Gill Hornby. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.

A little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki


Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’


Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

Whatever happened to …?

…Paul Micou


Whilst I was sorting out my chunksters the other day I came across six novels by an author I’d much enjoyed reading back in the 1990s. His name is Paul Micou, and I wondered what had become of him. An American; since graduating, he’s lived in London and then France.

A little research later, it turns out that he wrote another couple of novels in 2000 and 2008 – and apart from a couple of Kindle singles, has published nothing since. Only his last novel is still in print.

As I know many of you like searching out books, I thought I’d write about the first few to introduce this author to you.  Here are his eight novels…

Micou books

I was immediately drawn to his first novel published in 1989. The premise of The Music Programme sounded like something straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Set in a fictitious African country, the employees of a US-funded UN programme have been living it up but panic sets in when an inspector arrives.  I remember it as hilarious.

The Cover Artist (1990) is about an artist who makes more money passing off the expressionist paintings done by his black labrador Elizabeth as his, than his own works. My memory of this one is hazy, but I did love the dog.

The Death of David Debrizzi (1991) is his best-known novel, and possibly his best. The titular David was a child prodigy on the piano. He had two teachers, one English, one French.  The novel is told by Pierre Marie La Valoise (the French one), who is staying in a Swiss Sanatorium. When La Valoise hears that Sir Geoffrey Flynch has published a biography of David taking full credit for the boy’s, he has to retaliate. Some great comic set-pieces in this one.

I’ve only told you about the first three, because although I know I enjoyed three more my memory of reading them is even more hazy.  Micou has a great comic style though; these novels are gentle satires with a lot of humour and some spice. A bit William Boyd meets Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) via Richard Russo, and perhaps with a dash of Waugh and Tom Sharpe.

I’ve ordered a copy of his last novel, and found I had the seventh lurking unread on my shelves, so eventually my Micou collection will be complete – but I rather hope he decides to write some more…

Have any of you read Paul Micou’s books?
What other authors have fallen off the radar that you’d recommend

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Confessions of a Map Dealer by Paul Micou

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