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Outsidebooks #3 - Best books of 2005

If you've only read one book this year, and it was one of these... Bask in your great taste confirmed by our literary ed

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2006
Sitting opposite me, not talking much, he seemed a raw, formidable, and forbidding man. He was so forbidding that I couldn't muster the courage to tell him how very much I admired his work.
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2006
Sitting opposite me, not talking much, he seemed a raw, formidable, and forbidding man. He was so forbidding that I couldn't muster the courage to tell him how very much I admired his work.

All Riot On The Western Front: The Montage Art Of Winston Smith, Vol. 3 (Last Gasp) is collage artist Winston Smith's sideways slant on the American dream and the global nightmare. Stuffed full of old school cut-and-paste compositions which bring traditional Americana images of security together with their twisted counterpoints, this is the work of a post-punk anarchist John Heartfield. Smith's visuals have appeared in Playboy, Spin, and the New Yorker, as well as on album covers for Dead Kennedys, Green Day, DOA, and George Carlin. All Riot On The Western Front comes with a smart Introduction by New York cultural commentator Carlo McCormick and with a fulsome tribute from Hunter S. Thompson/Flann O'Brien illustrator Ralph Steadman.

The Not Knowing (Serpent's Tail) is Cathi Unsworth's first novel, concerning fringe figures from the London band and media scene towards the end of the Twentieth Century. Unsworth has long been a stalwart of the city's rock hack community, well liked and respected, associated with Bizarre magazine. She recently promoted this book with a joint reading, at the Horse Hospital, with Lydia Lunch and former NME News Editor Tommy Udo.

With respectful nods in the direction of Bret Easton Ellis, Derek Raymond, and Jake Arnott, The Not Knowing concerns Diana Kemp, journalist on the alternative arts magazine Lux, who hangs out at the ICA, sees pals die near Camden market, and hides from the violence of big city life. The best thing about The Not Knowing is its evocation of London's glamorous lowlife. And Unsworth knows the milieu she is writing about like the back of her hand.

Journeys of a Sufi Musician by Kudsi Erguner (Saqi Books) are a serious memoir concerning folkloric music, the controversial world music industry, and the spiritual chasm which exists between these two worlds.

In 1968, Turkish Whirling Dervishes accepted an invitation by UNESCO to perform in Paris. Kudsi Erguner, then a young Sufi musician, was amongst the lucky ones who got that chance to shine. He worked with the Dervishes on their subsequent tours of Europe and the States, becoming keenly aware of the double edged sword which is Western interest in ethnic music.

In this superb book - which plays host to a CD of stirring Sufi music - he writes about Istanbul's traditional meeting-places for dervishes, about growing close to the last great representatives of that community and about being inspired by their words and music. He notes their amazement at the growing interest of Westerners in a culture they believed was doomed under the repressive laws of the Turkish authorities. His chronicle sets out to share not only the final moments of a vanished community, but also to relate the encounter of traditional Sufi culture with the Western world. The Sufi musicians that I know in Morocco - equally caught between possible extinction at home and exploitation abroad - could do with a spokesman as eloquent as Erguner

Gonzo novel-cum-travelogue The Wild Highway (Creation Books) is the latest joint project from cultural terrorist Bill Drummond (best known for the Tammy Wynette collaborating, £1,000,000 burning, KLF) and Mark Manning (the shy retiring author whose alter ego is the debauched King of Rock'n'roll Sleaze, Zodiac Mindwarp).

Drummond and Manning's first road trip together - to the North Pole - resulted in the widely reviewed and often purchased Bad Wisdom. Their second trip - to Zaire - has given rise to The Wild Highway. It portrays a jungle hell on the verge of bloody civil war, our psychedelic art school heroes travelling up-river in search of the ghost of Conrad's Kurtz. The book is bigger that some telephone directories and too clever by half but there are wonderful digressions, asides, and tales of zany adventure. A brief meditation on What the Fuck Happened to Grace Slick Between White Rabbit and We Built This City On Rock'n'roll? promotes the notion that White Rabbit is some timeless classic whereas We Built This City is nothing more than Reagan-era vulgarity. I don't necessarily agree with either contention but I enjoyed the discussion.

The Story of Chicago May by Nuala O'Faolain (Hamish Hamilton) is about the lurid life and times of a notorious Irish criminal famous long ago as Chicago May. At nineteen, she stole her family's savings and ran away from her home in rural Ireland to America, arriving first at Nebraska. May then travelled to Chicago and New York where she worked as a hooker and robber hailed in tabloids as a Queen of the Underworld. In 1901, she fell in love with big-time criminal Eddie Guerin and followed him to Paris where, working as a double act, they robbed American Express. They got caught and sent to prison but May survived, returning to America to reinvent herself again and again until her death in 1929. Nuala O'Faolain was a prominent Dublin hack until she wrote a memoir which dished the dirt on her former lover, Irish feminist hack Nell McCaffterty. This brought her to international attention and now she is that familiar figure, an author is search of another bestseller. The story of Chicago May should, as least, make for a good movie, perhaps a kind of feminist Gangs of New York.

Cinema Eden; Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean by Juan Goytisolo (Eland) is a collection of provocative essays by a writer that anybody interested in fiction should check out and learn from. Goytisolo is a Spanish iconoclast now living in Marrakesh, where he played a significant role in preserving the historic Place Djemma El Fna. I have hugely admired Goytisolo since I read two of his early novels, Sands of Torremolinos and Siestas, in Tangier in 2001. Cinema Eden is heavy going, just like its author, whom I shared a First Class train carriage with last year when heading for Marrakesh. Sitting opposite me, not talking much, he seemed a raw, formidable, and forbidding man. He was so forbidding that I couldn't muster the courage to tell him how very much I admired his work.

No European writer knows the Islamic shores of the Mediterranean as intimately as Goytisolo, who has lived and worked amongst Muslims for 30 years. In Cinema Eden - much concerned with the world of Place Djemma El Fna - he celebrates a civilisation where ritual matters and tradition is alive, where saints live, story-tellers weave their myths nightly and where honour and dignity preserve the importance of the individual. A companion volume to Cinema Eden might well be The Garden of Secrets (Serpent's Tail), a fable concerning a Lorca-like writer who ends up living in the middle of the Marrakesh medina. Eland, who publish beautiful travel books, have presented Cinema Eden perfectly. Goytisolo's many novels - I'm reading A Cock-eyed Comedy right now - are well represented in Serpent's Tail's adventurous list.

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Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.

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