Sunday, May 07, 2006

Two Books I Will Not Read

It is of course the worst thing a reviewer can do (you know, without stooping to eating babies or licking the saddle of the exercise bike down at the gym; things of that ilk): to begin panning your subject without actually examining it first - a practice which I earnestly hope in times to come will be remembered as 'Pulling a Schembri'. That said, before I sink to this new low, at least allow me the courtesy of explaining myself.

I'm quite willing to extend charity towards book I nevertheless know instinctively to be complete trash, and flip through a few pages before laughing brutally and tossing the offending drivel bin-wards. But sometimes, just very occassionally, I will come across some vile grimoir that I feel at first glance that I must never, ever read, lest it actively make me less human. Despite these misgivings, such dire tomes tend to exercise an unhealthy attraction (much like my fantasy of recreating the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris with the pope), and therefore I feel I must mention them here, in the hopes that someone out there in blogland might manage to do what I dare not: suspend their undoubtedly excellent tastes, investigate the offending items, and report back to confirm or rebut my suspicions.

I spotted the first volume of sustained idiocy just the other day, radiating an aura of pointlessness down at me from the bookstore shelf: Jamie Oliver - Turning Up the Heat by Gilly Smith. M. Oliver stares whistfully out from the front cover wondering, presumably, whether his cut of the royalties will prove enough of a compensation for having had to hang out with someone called Gilly; the back cover, however, intrigues, mystifies and revolts. Jamie Oliver, who I'm sure most of us know only as the effetely lisping pretty-boy whose thankfully misleadingly titled Naked Chef series has become ubiquitous to channel 10's programming schedule, is revealed by the blurb writer as 'the people's champion', who dealt the British government a kick in the pants from which it may never recover. Wha? When did this happen, precisely? Moreover, it goes on to advise that Oliver has 'made capitalism cool' again for todays younger generation. Again I say: wha? Jamie Oliver may be a lot of things, and one of them may or may not be a good cook (I wouldn't know, being of the 30 second pasta school of cuisine: 1. boil kettle. 2. pour hot water over colander full of noodles. 3. eat the result. 4. pray for stomach ache to stop). Nevertheless, I have yet to see him, as he whizzes around the kitchen, skinny wrists a-flurry and such inspiring culinary advice as "Worrrrr!", "Yeee!" and "Pukka!" drizzling from his pouty lips like so much vinegarette, present a cohesive critique of the writings of Marx and Engles, nor explain why a proletarian state unmarred by corruption and tyranny is an implausibility. And besides this, he's a boring little narcissist, a biography of whom I cannot but fail to find interesting. He took tea with Tony Blair? Fascinating! But I'll give it a miss, thanks.

Offender number two is Junior, 5 time oscar winning actor Macaulay Culkin's foray into the literary arts. Junior is supposed to be a 'partly fictional memoir' of the experiences of a child actor strongly resembling Culkin, and his treatment by an overbearring father. From what I've seen and heard, though, the book reads like a) the work of a has-been desperately clutching at the last seconds of his fifteen minutes of fame, b) a maudlin attempt at winning sympathy, and c) entirely pretentious. Besides conveying information I really didn't need to know (were you aware that Macaulay has named his penis 'Floyd'?), the book is written as a' stream of conciousness' in the 'post-modern' vein, where such terms are synonymous with 'poorly-edited' and 'wanky'. Yes, I understand that Junior is meant to be an exploration of the relationship between audience and artwork, and the manufacture of the author as a subjective creation of the former, but approaching such concepts via the ineffable talent of Culkin is an insult to Barthes et al., pure and simple. It's sad, to be sure, that Culkin had a miserable childhood, and suffered severe emotional abuse at the hands of his father, but complaining about his experiences to anyone but a mental health professional and expecting at the same time that said complaints be regarded as art is pushing the boat a leeeetle too far. Whenever I see a copy of this book, it becomes necessary to re-play in my head that magnificent cinematic moment when Elijah Wood finally kills Culkin in The Good Son, or else feel out of sorts all day.

So there you are: two books I will not read, and which will hopefully wend their way to the remainder table and thence to the bonfire in short order. Unless, of course, they are both nominated for the next years Booker short-list, which wouldn't really surprise me one jot.


Nick said...

I get the feeling Jim Schembri puts less effort into his work than most people do into writing a postcard. The alternative, that he's actually trying to be funny and clever, is too depressing to contemplate.

Tony.T said...

I'm sure Schembri will claim he was only mimicing us dumb bloggers, using "satire". But by fuck that has to be one of the more childish articles to come out of the keyboard of a seasoned journo in a long time.

Tim said...

Both books resemble Schembri in that they have little if any reason to exist. But your post does raise the question: under what possible circumstance did you watch The Good Son all the way to the end?

Jon said...

An extremely bored and slightly drunken circumstance. Plus I knew how it was going to end: the vicarious pleasure was too great an opportunity to pass up.

Ben.H said...

Is it as satisfying as sitting through all of Falling Down just to watch Michael Douglas get totally killed?


Jon said...

Even more so, since I secretly quite enjoyed Falling Down. But tell no-one.

Galaxy said...

Alright, I'll bite in defense of Jamie Oliver. I'm not sure how convincing I'll be though, because I haven't read the book either, and nor am I likely to since I don't tend to read auto/biographies. But I do admire the work of Jamie Oliver.

You don't seem to have watched his most recent television series, which is perhaps why you're not impressed with his having tea with Tony Blair?

There are a few reasons to admire Jamie Oliver's approach to his celebrity chefdom. When he first appeared on the scene he was very clear that he wasn't asking people to recreate restaurant meals, but he was demanding that people recognise that cooking is a life skill, whether you're male or female, and that there was simply no reason that anyone couldn't cook tasty and nutritious food. He asked, first England, and then other parts of the Western world who were overly reliant on processed food, to develop their taste buds and to go outside their comfort zone to the ultimate benefit, I would argue, of their health and enjoyment of life, insofar as food is an integral part of both of those.

In the series 'Jamie's Dinners', he was quite properly outraged, I think, that children as young as ten were ending up in clinics being treated for constipation. And the statistics on the development of Type II diabetes in children are just horrific. He went and had a look at what the children of Britain were being fed as part of the state provided school dinners and found the worst kind of processed food, high in salt, fat and sugar. He went into a school and worked with suspicious catering staff who were all too happy to simply open a plastic bag of frozen smiley faces consisting of god knows what, and demonstrated that it was possible to create nutritionally balanced and tasty meals on the pathetic budgets afforded to them.

Of course he had to overcome student protests, that faction determined to clog up their systems with the poorest quality extruded 'food'. He did this by showing them where food came from, the farm, the garden, and involved them in making food which they then ate with pride in what they had made.

He also went to the manufacturers of said extruded bits and asked that they improve their recipe. Over tea with Tony Blair, he asked that the government improve the paltry budget for school dinners and implement minimal nutritional requirements.

Say what you will about his celebrity narcissism, but how many do we see establishing charities that offer people real life skills and the potential for ongoing employment as he does with the Fifteen Restaurant charity.

So he combines his charity work and his food/cooking awareness work with his celebrity status? I've seen far worse uses of the contemporary obsession with celebrity. I'm convinced he has actually affected people's lives in a positive way. Good food is for everyone.

Jon said...

Galaxy, your comprehensive defense of JO is articulate and sensible, and therefore probably has no place here. Though I didn't watch the accompanying series, I am aware of his school dinners campaign; and yes, he brought to light a serious problem and took steps towards solving it. Credit where credit is due.

What rouses my suspicions, though, is the ubiquity of the TV camera in all of his charitable endeavours. I called him a narcissist, but this may be giving him the benefit of the doubt. Isn't it a little odd that whenever Jamie regularly martyrs himself for Britain, there are cameras there, and a TV series, spin-offs in other countries, a tie-in book, etc. Oliver's activities are painstakingly crafted media manipulations, and I would be inclined to think far better of him if I knew that the millions he was raking in were going towards the social betterment he likes to portray himself as championing rather than comfortably lining his own pockets.

I'm not impressed with him having tea with Blair, no. Something about a social revolutionary taking tea with the PM in a carefully arranged publicity stunt complete with beneficial lighting and make-up artists rings a little untrue.

I am, admittedly biased: I find TV chefs grating, cheesy and onanistic (with the possible exceptions of Keith Floyd, who tended to get drunk on camera and fuck up the recipe, and Anthony Bourdain, who knows it's all a circus and plays it to the hilt), but I find Oliver's chirpy chappie act especially annoying. Plus I have it on good authority that his recipes are a bit shit. I suppose this is, quite literally, a matter of personal taste though, and I won't press the point.

TimT said...

Jon, I'm a big fan of this blog and your writing. For one thing, your replies to those who disagree with you are unfailingly courteous and self-deprecating. Another is lines like the following:

... radiating an aura of pointlessness down at me from the bookstore shelf...

Well done, sir.
I'm grateful that the faulty plural in the final paragraph was fixed, as well. Oh yes, I saw it.

Jon said...

Aw shucks, you'll make me blush.

The typos are probably going to continue popping up on a regular basis, since I ususally can't be bothered spell-checking or proof-reading these days. Vive la laziness.

Mack said...

Schembri is a bit hit and miss I agree. He can be a lazy journalist, however, for what it's worth, I thought his piece on blogging wasn't the worst satire on the proliferation of crappy online diarists in the blog world.

Some sore of quarantining process needs to be opened up for the worst offenders, he says knowing full well that his little piece of online turf could be construed as worthy of quarantining. I'm ready. I have a pitchfork.

divinetrash said...

Jonny; would you think less of me if I told you that I would probably read Macaulay Culkin's book? (As long as I didn't have to exchange money for the privilege.) The worst part of this confession is that I would read it because I can't help having a big, fat crush on him.

Yeah, I know I'm a lost cause.

Jon said...

No, I remember your bizarre infatuation with Macaulay and his 'strong-lipped' kisses, Alex. If anything is going to help you get over your crush though, I suspect it's Junior. You know, that or psychotherapy. If you do read it, let me know if my pre-emptive hatchet-job was justified.