Book Review – Will Self, Bill Bryson, Joanne Harris and Jamie Oliver

Unmarked Graves

(originally published 1/9/00 in TVS Magazine)

Will Self is an undeniably odd fish. Purveyor of cartoons which were as unfunny as they were self-indulgent, possessing a name straight out of a Martin Amis novel and as drug-addled and pretentious as a late sixties Yoko Ono exhibition. Nevertheless, he can write the odd good novel as his last book Great Apes finally attested. How The Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99) is a book with an intriguingly barmy premise: when people die, they go to Dulston in North London.

Drawing on meditations about his own recently deceased mother, Self’s story centres on Lily Bloom, an abrasive pensioner who has succumbed to cancer. She is guided through the Dulston spirit realm by an Aborigine, meeting those members of her family who are dead and watching over those members of her family who are still alive. It’s a close call between who she disapproves of the most. This fascinating premise is, typically, almost ruined by Self’s pretensions to a wholly imaginary notion of great literature, of the sort that would have Charles Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald – looking down from their own versions of Dulston – telling him to lay off the night-visions and the thesaurus. And that’s before we get to Self’s preoccupation with tabloid-esque puns, which by rights should be buried in an unmarked grave for the good of mankind. Like many of his generation, Self is eager to wind up his audience, so he shouldn’t be too surprised when people give up on this half-way through and never go near his books again. It’s how he wants it.

It’s hard to know what Bill Bryson expects from his audience, although he’s unlikely to have expected the critical mauling his latest Down Under (Doubleday £16.99) has received. Well, I’ve read the book from front to back. I’ve also read it back to front, upside down and even sniffed the glue on the bindings. The only thing the book seems guilty of is being written by successful writer Bill Bryson. It seems that for daring to be popular, he has practically invited the derision dished out by that wonderful species of pond scum known as the British book reviewer.

Down Under is a Bill Bryson book about Australia, and as such does the usual thing of both conforming and subverting our pre-conceived assumptions about the nation. So we get deadly spiders and heaps of sunburn as well as urine-drinking and lifestyles of the Aussie rich and famous, shot through with an unforced sense of humour. But Bryson, in the eyes of his critics, has now been taken down a peg. Serves him right.

Catholicism is this year’s big thing. Last year it was the Holocaust – the year before that it was serial killers. These latter two are undeniably Bad Things, but whether worshipping Papal Infallibility is necessarily as bad is a tough call I, as a Proddy dog, am not about to make. Joanne Harris thinks otherwise, and has here presented a little morality tale called Chocolat (Bantam, £6.99), where the strictures of the Catholic Church during its Lenten abstinence are contrasted with a pesky woman who wants everybody to eat chocolate. Chocolate is tastier, certainly, and probably more spiritually fulfilling, but it doesn’t half show on your hips.

The “Jim Morrison of cookery” Jamie Oliver is back with the Return of the Naked Chef (Michael Joseph £20). He may make crap adverts and be an all-round annoying kind of guy who describes his publishers as ‘pukka’ without embarrassment but, er… actually there is no but. Strict but fair, that’s me. Jamie Oliver may make a ton of money from this stuff, and his wedding pictures may be an ‘exclusive’ on the front page of Heat, and he may be mates with Zoe Ball, but he’s still an annoying git, going through life thinking he’s a character from a Guy Ritchie film. Stick that up your Aga.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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