Sunday 03 March 1996
! Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh, Vintage pounds 5.99. Roy Strang lies comatose and brain-damaged in a hospital bed after a suicide attempt. Aware of the fussing of nurses and visitors, he prefers to float away with his alter-ego Sandy Jamieson into a fictional African reality which owes something in its atmosphere to Rider Haggard, or maybe Glen Baxter. However, he also has an urge to trace the making of a rapist (himself) in the shitty, drug-choked, liquor-soused Scottish housing estate where he grew up. There is much pleasure in the comic detail, especially the portrait of Roy's father, a hard-drinking security guard. But the book's ambition to be more than a Kelman or a Roddy Doyle should be judged first by the success of the storytelling framework (so close to that of The Singing Detective) and second by his didacticism, emerging strongly towards the end and preaching zero-tolerance for violence against women. Maybe Welsh means to redeem some of the most violent sex scenes I've read since Last Exit to Brooklyn. If so, on a first reading, he doesn't quite do it.
! The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe by John Boswell, Fontana pounds 8.99. The author unearths scores of previously unremarked same-sex union ceremonies from between the 8th and the 18th centuries - as it happens, all of them for the joining of males. Lesbian couples, he argues, were relatively disregarded by the authorities and so had less (or no) need for such ceremonies. But why should that be? Was it because lesbian sex was not considered "real" - Queen Victoria's view adopted by British law? Boswell, unashamedly tendentious but a massive researcher, raises many such questions about the meaning of marriage and sexuality in our tradition. Ever since Kinsey, sex has been fed on an industrial scale through the plocketa-plocketa academic machine. That this book manages to add a few new gurgles and squeeches is impressive.
! The Sorcerer's Challenge: Fears and Hopes for the Weapons of the Next Millennium by David Shukman, Coronet pounds 7.99. The Americans who tried to defeat General Noriega by blasting him with rock music were pioneering an idea now, according to Shukman, under further consideration by the US army: a noise bomb which can cause "vomiting or bowel spasms" at a kilometre's distance. (With no entry for Meatloaf in the index, there's no way of knowing if this research includes the differential nausea induced by Heavy Metal groups.) It's just one of the schemes being passed proudly around the big table in the Pentagon war room, along with vehicle-disabling gas mines, robot locusts that hurl themselves destructively into aero engines etc. This is a chatty but interesting book majoring on shiny metal- type war-toys. I would have welcomed more on the insidious nightmare of military/genetic research.
! The Botticelli Angel by Harry Cauley, Penguin pounds 5.99. This tough but charming American fantasy tells the adventures of drifter John Tree whose protege Michael is a beautiful young man with two peculiar "wing-things" growing from his shoulders and the strange aura of a prelapsarian innocent. Whether or not Michael really is an angel, he certainly sings like one and so they set off on a rackety drive from Pittsburgh to Hollywood, where the angel's career in the movies will, John devoutly hopes, make them millions. That it won't happen is beside the point: the journey, with its tricks and treats and twists of fortune, is the thing. The setting of Cauley's fable - the 1920s - is apt. This is neither a Bunyan allegory nor a Kerouac road opera, but has some of the qualities of both.
! Lord Gnome's Literary Companion, ed Francis Wheen, Verso pounds 11.95. To say His Lordship's bookish chum is critical would be like describing Ron Knee as a shade off-colour. These book reviews from Private Eye are cover- to-cover vituperation - about authors, who appear as either freeloading lamebrains or con artists (a rare exception being the bald radio broadcaster Robert Robinson) and equally about publishers, agents or indeed anyone else in the book trade. It all gets a mite repetitive after a while, and many of the targets are sitting up on the firing range wearing day-glo suits. But this drawback is nothing compared to Wheen's absurdly pompous preface, asking you to consider his collection as meet for a thesis.
Contemporary Asian Architects by Hasan-Uddin Khan (Taschen pounds 11.99) ranges from Turkey, through the Arab world to the Far East. Sumet Jumsai's Bank of Asia building in Bangkok is a giant robot; Hong Kong's Tao Ho designs a vast shopping mall for Suzhou on a classical Chinese theme; Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka conceives a timeless Buddhist temple. As well as huge official buildings, the book features dramatic homes, like (above) the Roof Roof House of Kuala Lumpur designed by Ken Yeang for himself
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