Book Review: Liverpool Fantasy

May 29, 2008

Liverpool Fantasy

Liverpool Fantasy By Larry Kirwan

Published April 2003

Da Capo Press

310 pp.

ISBN 1-560-25497-3

Date Reviewed: September 30, 2003

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

The Beatles. No musical group has ever swept the world the way these four men did in the 1960s. With their youthful charisma and fresh talent, the Beatles led a revolution in popular music and culture that is still felt today.

Since their official breakup in 1970, there has been endless talk by fans of a reunion, but few ever think about a darker possibility: What would the world be like if the Beatles had never existed? What if some cataclysm had driven them apart before the world could hear them? And what would happen if the four got together again after the world passed them by? These are the questions addressed by Larry Kirwan, playwright and rock musician, in the darkly comic novel “Liverpool Fantasy.”

The story begins at Abbey Road Studios in 1962. Parlophone Records is willing to sign the Beatles to a contract, but only if their first single is “Till There Was You.” John Lennon feels it should be his composition “Please Please Me,” and is violently opposed to the studio’s choice, which he refers to as a “nursery crime.”

Paul McCartney, on the other hand, feels they need to take the opportunity as it presents itself. When the record company refuses to budge, John walks out, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr following. Paul stays behind, and the Beatles come to an end before they could ever take off.

The story then fast-forwards to 1987-exactly 25 years after the group’s breakup over the first single. Paul is now the Las Vegas entertainer Paul Montana, suffering from a collapsing career and failed marriages. Wishing to rebuild his life, he heads home to Liverpool, only to find a changed world. John is now surly and misanthropic, bitterly drinking away each day. George is a lonely priest recovering from a nervous breakdown and Ringo is reduced to living off his wife’s earnings, feeding his love for music by sitting in sporadically with other bands.

Liverpool is a shadow of its former self, dominated by the fascist National Front-a group to which John’s son Julian belongs. It is Paul’s hope to rebuild the Beatles, but 25 years of broken dreams cannot be easily fixed.

Kirwan has an almost uncanny gift for transporting the reader into a Liverpool broken from years of neglect. One can almost see the winding streets with their mud and rust, and smell the alcohol and smoke in the bars where the aged rockers bemoan their lost dreams. John’s house is a fantastic stage for this drama, with the empty beer bottles and scratchy LPs beautifully defining a life unlived.

The true marvel of this book is the way the Beatles are portrayed. Kirwan paints a very different picture of them, their youthful spirits blunted by years of disappointment.

Readers can practically hear the musicians: George’s soft voice holds a brittle edge when speaking of opportunities lost, while Ringo’s quiet country accent seems more mournful than ever. Paul’s melodic tones are desperate, his Vegas facade worn away when the past comes surging back. Yet they all pale beside the caustic John Lennon, his bitter curses directed against friends and family alike, voicing what may have been: “We could have been a lot more than musicians … turned the world upside-fucking-down!”

“Liverpool Fantasy” is a bittersweet work that will appeal to all who pick it up. Readers with little exposure to the group will enjoy the cutting dialogue and defined characters, but to Beatles fans it will be the definitive work of fiction on the group. The description of the reunion will give any fan chills, and Lennon’s witticisms will have them laughing at first read. Both sorrowful and humorous, it is a brilliant novel of friendship, music, love, family and everything in between.

(Fun fact: my first printed book review ever. They gave me a full page – not bad for a freshman.)

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Cardinal Column #3: Unread Classics

May 28, 2008

(Editor’s note: Based on a true story like all good columns are, this one got some gripe from people who thought I was attacking the books. They felt I was trivializing these books and dismissing their merits, judging them without having a basis for it. It also had the unfortunate luck, as several of my articles have, of being undercut by a poor headline that added to the interpretation.

That is not at all the idea I was trying to get across. What I wanted to say was that too often, people read classic works of literature because they either think they’re supposed to [part of a literary tradition] or because they’re told to, and I think that doing that sucks a lot out of the book. It turns it into an obligation rather than an exploration, and you tend to dismiss most of what they say.

I cite “The Great Gatsby” as an example.I didn’t read “Gatsby” until I was a freshman in college – having been too distracted to take AP English or American Lit courses in high school, I opted for more composition courses. Most of the people who read the book I talked to tended to speak negatively of it, as though it was dull and long-winded. I read the entire thing in one sit after getting it for Christmas, and was left basically trembling afterwards. In my mind, not having to read it for class made it a much more enjoyable experience, deciding to look at it from only the perspective I’ve determined.

I would prefer to revisit this topic in a different format, but for consistency’s sake I’ll reprint it in its entirety. By the way, since this writing I have read both “1984” and the first Harry Potter book.)

Pretention makes these novels “classic”

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, September 28, 2005

I come from suburbia, which means that every time I go home for the summer there is absolutely nothing to do beyond hanging out with my circle of high school friends and drink. Our conversation topics usually depend on whatever’s lying around my living room or basement – for some reason, everyone always winds up at my house even when I don’t know they’re in town.

On my last visit home, one of these topics wound up being George Orwell’s “1984”, which my brother had just completed reading thanks to his girlfriend. Someone – I forget who, as a bottle of Captain Morgan was being passed from armchair to sofa and back again – heard it had just entered the house and brought it into a lull of conversation.

“Oh yeah, 1984. Great book. What’d you think of it Les?”

“Uh, yeah – I’ve actually never read it.”

The room became so quiet you’d think someone had thrown the bottle against the wall. My friend Chad was the first to speak. “How could have not read 1984? That’s the sort of book you have to read just to be a pretentious asshole and say you’ve read it.”

Yes, it is true. I, a literature columnist and pretentious asshole, have never “1984” or even skimmed any of it beyond the opening where the clock strikes 13. My wall of shame doesn’t end there, either – I’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye”, “Moby Dick”, “Red Badge of Courage”, anything by Ayn Rand or any of the Harry Potter series. (I’m guessing I don’t need to ask which one will offend my reader base the most.)

It’s not that I’m prejudiced against mainstream classics – well, except Ayn Rand but that’s more a belief no one should be allowed to talk for that many pages. On the contrary, when I decided to read “The Great Gatsby” freshman year I had to resist the urge to call everyone “old sport” for days, and after finishing “On The Road” this summer I kept walking around campus until I realized walking on the road puts you in the lake.

So why have I never gotten around to attacking this stack of epics? There’s a wide variety of reasons – laziness and cheapness come to mind as the largest reasons, but I think the main reason is rebellious nature toward being told what to read. As years of high school English, scholarship essay contests no one ever wins and Calvin and Hobbes should have taught you, it only counts as fun if somebody makes you do it.

When I introduce a classic book into my life, it tends to be personal whims that drive its addition to the library. There’s a surplus of Fitzgerald at the used bookstore? Time to pull out my wallet. A friend accidentally leaves a copy of “On The Road” at my house? I know how my weekend will be spent. My brother’s bought the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series? Guess he won’t be seeing it for a couple weeks.

Recommendations and loans from friends can help you make the decision, but social pressure is the one thing books should never be a part of. Classic books were birthed through a mix of bullshit, boredom, alcoholism and a small dose of brilliance, and trying to force them into your life can spoil your enjoyment of that combination for good.

I’m sure that before too long something will bring Orwell into my life, be it a battered copy at Paul’s Books or my brother’s girlfriend not picking up her copy from our house during the next Christmas vacation. Until then, I’ll have to rely on my personality to secure the pretentious asshole title.


Cardinal Column #2: Digital Books

May 16, 2008

(Editor’s note: My first formal Cardinal column, written as an experiment for a mainstream format. The opening clearly reflects my two-paragraph introduction style, getting attention and then getting to the meat of the story. I wanted to go with a set topic, so I raided the news for stories on the libraries and players in the field. Thanks to Yahoo! and CNN for being such as reliable source of column ideas as the year went on.

I agree with some of my points, even though I’ve had an iPod for a few years now and have grown quite fond of some audio books, particularly ones read by William S. Burroughs himself – although I touch on that topic much later in the year’s run. I still prefer the bookshelf groaning under its own weight to an overbooked hard drive, but my mind is more open than it was three years ago.

I plan to revisit this topic at a later date, especially with readers such as the Amazon Kindle moving to the forefront. Hopefully I’m famous enough to qualify for a free one.)

Technology digitally divides up Les’ leisure time

Originally printed in The Daily Cardinal, September 14, 2005

These days, technology seems to have an obsession with making things smaller and smarter. Apple recently introduced the iPod Nano, an MP3 player that holds more songs than a jukebox and weighs less then the change I need for laundry. Samsung is working a flash drive that, at 12 gigs, make it not even necessary to store data on a hard drive.

And now, that obsession with shrinking things has targeted one of the oldest institutions in the world: books. Over the summer, a string of developments have pushed books into a digital format, possibly leading to a new trend of putting books in headphones and computer screens as opposed to printed pages.

I first noticed this trend during a search for the latest novel releases online, when I saw that libraries in Ohio, Arizona and New York have begun adding audiobooks to their catalogue. The files can be checked out by multiple patrons and rendered inactive after the due date, already taking into account the forgetfulness of most readers.

No fewer than three days after this announcement, online bookstore Amazon announced they’ll be offering downloads of short stories and sample chapters for only 49 cents. Authors like Terry Brooks and Danielle Steel have already signed deals for exclusive material, delivering romance and can now be delivered straight to the desktop.

And, as no movement can be successful without a celebrity endorsement, J.K. Rowling has scaled down her pile of money and announced she’ll be releasing the entire Harry Potter series through iTunes. Her decision was made to combat the piracy of her books, but I predict the ability to sell each volume for $32 cast a spell on her.

In all honesty, I’m not sure how to regard this movement toward the digital. Of course, reading a book on screen makes it easier to pretend to work at the office and an MP3 player is easier to carry around than four paperbacks in my pockets (the trick is to invest in cargo pants), but I’m a little reluctant to depart from my classic format.

I like being able to pull out a dog-eared paperback or a thick hardcover, flick the pages between my fingers and go over the same spot ten or twenty times over the course of one reading – it’s as much a part of reading as the plot. If I turn my traditional reading focus to a computer screen or headphones, I’ll be blind and deaf within five years.

And if the upgrade to digital book becomes more prevalent, it will phase out all the old tricks I learned over the years. It takes years of practice to balance a sci-fi novel inside a textbook or notebook and keep it hidden from the prying eyes of teachers, and the muscle strength of carrying a loaded backpack from the library doesn’t develop overnight.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but I’m personally happier keeping my library on a shelf than on three CD’s. If that’s the way of the times though, maybe it’s finally time for me to invest in that iPod.


Cardinal Column #1: Reading Outside

May 16, 2008

(Editor’s note: This was the first of my published columns, originally written as one of three submissions for the literature columnist position at the Daily Cardinal. It came to me as I was randomly wandering through Library Mall enjoying the nice weather, looking for a third topic for my submissions. I immediately parked myself on a bench and pulled out a laptop, and wrote most of it in a burst of creativity that afternoon. Interestingly enough, I had no idea this was going to get published until I picked up the summer SOAR issue and saw it written there.

I think it holds up well – I approve of many of the phrases I put down, even though it’s clearly more introspective than my other columns. I still agree with everything I’ve written here, and could probably tack on a few more in the future. We’ll save that for a closing column about leaving Madison perhaps.)

Reading outdoors means sun, fresh air and animal friends

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, Summer 2005

Well, spring has finally reared its head on our Arctic campus, allowing me to write this column sitting on the stairs near Library Mall instead of the fluorescent tomb which is my dorm room. As the black salt/ice combination that blankets the city goes away, students emerge ready for action, able to bike and throw Frisbees once again.

I have also come out ready for action, but – as you may have guessed – that action is reading. Reading outside for me is something close to a religious experience, the chance to get out there and enhance the experience with sunlight and fresh air.

I can’t really think of what it is that makes reading outside such a good experience, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sounds. When you’re inside your reading options are either deadly silent places like empty bedrooms and libraries, or constant chatter zones like cafeterias and lecture halls. When you’re outside you avoid all these extremes, getting a blend of wind and nature that induces an immediate calm.

So where to find this calm on UW-Madison? Bascom Hill might be the obvious choice – with wind blowing through grass and the quiet murmur of people walking by – but it rarely works out long-term since it sacrifices reading comfort. I need lower back support when I’m reading and also a steady source of shade, neither of which is offered on Bascom’s rough slant.

If you want to be on the hill I suggest you stick to one of the trees on the sides, adjusting slightly as the sun moves across the sky. If you can stand the bark grinding into your back it’s a perfect spot to get in a chapter or two before class, and a perfect place to nod off after finishing the book.

Readers who like to have action around them may want to roll down the hill to Library Mall, where the open space and the constant activity make a terrific short-term spot. The sounds of piccolo music and sparrow-filled bushes are mixed with Frisbee games and panhandling student organizations, creating an interesting blend.

Library Mall is the place for social readers, who want to be able to start something else once you’ve finished your reading. There’s something to be said for any place where you can put down a chapter and go get an orange smoothie, a socialist pamphlet or a new book without walking more than fifty feet.

For those periods where I want to stop reading when the book is finished I choose to drift north onto the shores of Lake Mendota. Between the Terrace and Picnic Point there are dozens of rock formations where you can stretch out comfortably, as isolated as a locker in Memorial Library but far more inviting. I don’t think there’s any better background noise or setting for a reading than waves beating against a shore – it’s my personal metronome.

There’s plenty of activity here – not curious students coming to smoke or lost joggers but animal companions. I’ve had squirrels, ducks, chipmunks and robins all drift around my Lakeshore spots, and at one point wound up throwing ants into a nearby spider web. It’s a little jarring at first, but you eventually get used to having a silent audience that – in your mind – appreciates a book’s jokes and plot twists as much as you do.

So get out there – the sun is up and the sky is blue, and there’s no valid excuse not to start turning pages.