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Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Returns - Philip Salom (2019)


Rating: Admirable

The Returns is one of those books that is about everything, and yet nothing (yes, like Seinfeld), and so therefore is a true piece of literary fiction. There's a slight plot, about two middle aged people finding each other, but mostly the novel is heavily thematic. Salom covers a lot of bases, such as art and its inherent value as therapy through creativity for the artist and a provider of that spark of existential recognition for the consumer of that art. There's childhood trauma, and how readily it shapes the life of the adult. Elizabeth, a waif-like neurotic (although in a charming way), who is a work from home editor of novels (of course), has an aged former Rajneeshee mother to deal with, whilst Trevor, an overweight book-shop owning divorcee who is struggling to rediscover his artistic spark has to deal with his narcissistic Polish father returning from being declared dead. At the heart of the novel is the value of friendship and the importance of new beginnings, two things that most middle-agers (not new-agers) would recognise as being vitally important ingredients in finding some meaning in life just when you need it.

The Returns is also the kind of book in which you suddenly realise that the author is channelling his thoughts about art through the dialogue and inner thoughts of the characters, which is mostly okay, until it becomes very obvious. This occurs when Trevor attends his ex partner's birthday party held in his former home and crashes in on a millennial conversation about poetry (Salom himself is actually predominately a poet) and proceeds the wax lyrical about poetry and novels being hallucinatory, that narratives are drugs that work for some people and not for others, which coincidently is an apt description of my bookclubs' reaction to this novel. I will not hold it against Salom, as it is exactly the kind of thing I'd do if I could actually write a decent novel, which is what The Returns is actually. By the time you get to the end you've really got to know Elizabeth and Trevor and also the host of quite well rounded minor characters. The ending also contains a really tasteful rendering of a relationship changing gear, without any of the cliches and heavy-handedness you may find elsewhere. So, if you like literary fiction in which the kind of 'shit happens' that is typical for middle-aged protagonists to endure, combined with some meaty themes, then this novel is for you. If not then look elsewhere, perhaps in the very shop that Trevor owns, where he will ponder his interaction with you and relate it to either his own life or broader and more nebulous philosophical considerations.                                      

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

2020 - Reading Through the Calamity: The Best and Worst (of Times)


My latest read - some fantasy!

As we all know, 2020 was a doozy, however I still managed to get a bit of reading done. I'll get right to it: reviewing the year I realise that I awarded no sublime ratings, it obviously just wasn't a year for the very best, however there were quite a few excellent ratings, the best of which was Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), which simply burst with ideas and was written to a high standard. Damascus (2019) by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas was superb as well, uncompromising and compelling, it was also the best book club book I read all year, particularly as many book club choices were admirable at best. Querelle of Brest (1947) by Jean Genet was perhaps the most psychologically intense novel I read all year, and also one of the most unusual. It was also a good year for reading non-fiction, with six entering my brain via my book-shaped eyes, the best of which was Slavoj Zizek's The Courage of Hopelessness (2017), although he certainly is an intense man.

In some ways it was an odd year of reading, in which I reached for some books that I might have normally overlooked, such as Communion (1987) by Whitley Strieber, mostly to satisfy a curious reading itch I'd had since I was a teenager; the book was dubious, but I'm pleased that I finally read it. One of the worst books of the year was Space Ark (1981) by Thomas Huschman, which I read because I needed something light, which is was, but it was also far from the best science fiction you could read, unlike Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds, which was superb. Two of the worst books were Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2019) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, which was very stilted, and The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) by Deborah Levy, which was kind of pointless. Both were book club books and both came during a time when Perth was shut down during the beginning of the pandemic - they made for disappointing reads unfortunately. By far the worst book was Simon Goddard's Ziggyology (2013), which garnered a rare rating of reprehensible. I haven't changed my mind about that rating, so sorry to the person who commented, implying that it was all a bit harsh, I still feel just as harsh in fact. 

In any case, onwards toward another year of reading. I will not promise to read more books, as between working full time, a relationship and all the life admin things that have to be done it seems that I can never read more than about twenty four books in a year. Still, I might read more next year because I'll be spending less time reading about the reprehensibility of Trump in the media. I'd like to personally thank all 81 million + Americans who voted him out, you were on the right side of history.

Friday, 25 December 2020

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)


Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Shirley Jackson, but had never considered reading her until I found out about the movie Shirley (2020), with Elizabeth Moss portraying Jackson. I bought The Haunting of Hill House in preparation for watching the film and it turned out to be an interesting experience. Jackson's style is quite unlike any other authors I've read, although it is difficult to say exactly why. The best I can do is that it is slightly awkward, in that sometimes it seems to be brilliant prose and other times it seems to be, well, a bit contrived. Perhaps this is because one of the principle protagonists, Eleanor Vance, is certainly neurotic, disturbed even, and Jackson takes great pains to alert the reader to this fact. Eleanor is invited to Hill House, along with two others (Theodora and Luke) by the scientifically minded Dr Montague, who wishes to spend some time in the house to experience first hand its supposed supernatural activity. Jackson does set the scene well, with evocative descriptions of the house and the emotional effect it has on the protagonists, in particular Eleanor, who is both drawn and repulsed by its somber gothic architecture.

Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's version of a haunted house tale has been so influential, it is difficult to imagine what kind of an impact it had when it was originally published. The novel subverts the typical ghost narrative by strongly implying that the true horror lies within the characters psyches, in particular Eleanor, and any actual supernatural occurrences are either happening within Eleanor's head or she is indeed causing the manifestations with telekinetic abilities. I'm not giving anything away here, as such an approach is so common now. Jackson even has some fun satirising the whole idea of paranormal research when Dr Montague's wife and her ultra pragmatic assistant, Arthur, turn up to take charge of proceedings. Mrs Montague's approach is a source of satirical humour in a narrative that is otherwise uptight with neurotic tension. Although by the time I was half way through the novel I still couldn't make up my mind whether it was quality literature of above average pulp, I kept on being drawn back, as if I was Eleanor, both repulsed yet ever more attracted to Hill House's grim endgame. The Haunting of Hill House is a curious novel, at times it seems totally over the top, yet much of the action is implied and the reader has to do some work to make sense of what is actually happening. The novel left me wanting to read more of Shirley Jackson's work, particularly after viewing Shirley, which has now become one of my all time favourite films. Jackson herself was also a fascinating character and I advise reading up about her before you read any of her work or watch the above mentioned film.

Shirley Jackson as Shirley Jackson

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams (2020)


Rating: Admirable

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a charming and engaging novel which covers a fascinating period of history that includes the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary (1879 to 1928). For bibliophiles and logophiles such a novel cannot help but be enticing, however it took me around eighty pages before my interest was piqued; it might be because I'm usually not that interested in novels' that begin with the main protagonists' childhood, but it wasn't just me, as quite a few people in my library book clubs also found the novel very slow at the beginning. The main protagonist in question, Esme Nicoll, enjoys a childhood that revolves around the 'Scriptorium', a glorified shed where her father, Harry Nicoll, toils at putting together the dictionary (the novel goes into quite a bit of detail about the process, which is fascinating) along with historical figures such as Sir James Murray, C.T. Onions and Rosfrith Murray. As Esme gets older she is invited to work within the Scriptorium and this is where the novel becomes much more interesting, as the reader becomes immersed in the amazing task of putting together the dictionary.

As the novel progresses Esme grows older and is confronted with adult life within Edwardian society, which includes dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, patriarchal attitudes and the kind of real life tragedies that make narratives compelling. There's the suffragettes, one of which becomes a close friend, and one of the best portrayals of the civilian impact of WWI I have ever read. During all of this Esme sets about gathering words that are not part of the OED, many of which she hears from women of all classes, such as her bondmaid (famously this word was accidentally left out of the OED), Lizzie, and a colourful former prostitute Esme meets down at the markets. These are the words that become part of her dictionary of lost words, including the C - word, which was definitely not part of the first OED! Esme is quite a character and I've always thought that if you start having emotional reactions about what is happening to characters then the author has written quite a fine novel; not only that but Williams has also produced a clever denouement that manages to tie up all of the narrative strands, of which there were many, and makes you think at the same time. If I rated books using a numerical system then The Dictionary of Lost Words would be given three and a half, however using my system I'm rounding down to admirable (rather than excellent) due to the very slow beginning, but if you can get through that then it is a quality debut novel.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Mao II - Don DeLillo (1991)


Rating: Excellent

Don DeLillo is my favourite literary fiction author and has been ever since I bought a copy of The Names (1982) from a Perth airport book store in 1989 before I embarked on a trip to Europe. Mao II, of all his novel's I've read so far, is certainly his most literary. The novel features no discernible plot, instead it acts as a focus for various thematic ruminations, such as the cultural agency of terrorists, the declining cultural agency of authors and the individual versus the crowd. The novel features an aging renowned author, Bill Gray, who lives in hiding whilst struggling with writers block, or at least a severe decline in inspiration. Gray hides away from the attention he received due to the perceieved profundity of his work; however an idealistic fan (Scott) tracked him down, ending up working for him obsessively, along with a stray young woman (Karen) rescued from the streets who was one of the hundreds of brides married off to a Korean in a Moony ceremony in the opening scenes of the novel. Meanwhile a photographer, Brita, who only takes photos of authors, has been invited to take photos of Bill Gray, the first in a very long time. The novel ends up taking us, and Bill, to the Middle East, where a young poet is held hostage by a terrorist organisation. All of this is typical DeLillo fodder and you can't help but read the novel carefully, trying to tease apart all the implied meanings and subtexts, which is great fun really, well, for me it is anyway.

As usual DeLillo's prose is spare, delivered with a gravitas that flirts with pretension, yet never succumbs (well, to me at least...). There's something about the way DeLillo writes, whenever I read one of his novel's I realise that during that time I look at the world differently; everything appears to contain hidden layers that are revealing themselves to me. Despite the lack of plot to drive the novel forward, Mao II engages both the heart and mind. There's something about an author of DeLillo's stature writing about writing, creating a fictitious author to convey something about what it is to be confronted by the blank page, to do it every day to hopefully create something worthwhile. Just how worthwhile is one of the most interesting themes in Mao II. An author, like a cult leader, holds multitudes in his/her sway, yet there is virtually no contact made, unlike the cult leader who has regular corporeal contact with other humans. Both, however, are superseded by the terrorist, who both attracts followers and strikes fear into the hearts of whole nations, as opposed to the author and cult leader, both of whom could easily be ignored by the majority. There appears to be a perception among critics that in light of the events of September 11, only ten years later, DeLillo was prescient regarding the impact of terrorism on Western culture, and perhaps rightly so. Meanwhile for anyone wanting to explore DeLillo's work, I wouldn't start with Mao II, despite its layered depths, instead I'd go with The Names (1982) or his post-modern masterpiece White Noise (1985), either way, DeLillo is well worth reading for anyone interested in modern literary fiction.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge (1992)


Rating: Excellent

Vernor Vinge is a very interesting character, he's a retired mathematics and computer science professor, but is perhaps more significantly known as an early adherent of the concept of the technological singularity. Vinge also wrote one of the first science fiction stories about cyberspace, with his novella True Names (1981). I picked up A Fire Upon the Deep pre pandemic in Melbourne from the superb Readings store in Carlton and I'm so glad that I did because it is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read. Like the novels of Iain M. Banks, A Fire Upon the Deep is packed full of highly imaginative ideas. The novel is conceptually brilliant, with a fully realised galactic wide ecosystem dived up into 'zones of thought', that uses an internet-like 'use-net' system of communicating. The novel has everything - a multitude of weird aliens, space battles, transcendent alien intelligences, cool space-ships, duplicity and even something called 'god-shatter' (no, I'm not explaining it).

Vernor Vinge has one of those writing styles that is both easy to digest and yet conveys enough complexity to keep you fully engaged. Vinge also shines at characterisation, although he is better with the alien characters than with the human ones, such as the Nyjoran, Ravna Bergsndot, who is an intrepid librarian stuck in an awkward galaxy wide AI blight type of situation (yes, that's right, a librarian). Aliens such as the smallish tree-like Skroderiders, who scoot about in technologically advanced carts, somehow seem much more developed in character, but this is a minor criticism, as is the slight dip in pace around the middle of this long novel. Perhaps Vinge's greatest creation however, are the Tines, who are highly complex and enduring alien characters that I will not reveal anything about so that you too can have the pleasure of discovering how they tick. It is the Tines that I'll miss the most and I consider them to be one of the most fully realised alien races in science fiction. I'm not surprised that Vinge won the Hugo Award for A Fire Upon the Deep, as its combination of an engaging plot, fascinating characters and its refreshing take on many space-opera tropes makes for compelling reading. I knew that I was reading quality work when I came to a point in the narrative in which I could barely stand what might happen to the characters, so I had to jump ahead to make sure that they would be all right before I commenced reading again, which is something that very rarely happens to me. Vinge wrote a prequel called A Deepness in the Sky (1999), which is now on my ever lengthening to read list.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Hamnet - Maggie O'Farrell (2020)


Rating: Admirable

Shakespeare is always a fascinating writer to ponder, considering his literary legacy coupled with how little is known about him, something that has left plenty of room for the various conspiracy theories concerning whether it was someone else who wrote all of those amazing plays. Fortunately O'Farrell is no conspiracy theorist, rather she has written an interesting novel around what little is known about Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, whom died at the age of 11 from unknown causes. O'Farrell, appropriately for our times, depicts that it was from the bubonic plague. Despite the title of the book and Shakespeare looming large, the novel's main focus is Agnes (Anne Hathaway), her life and how she deals with the death of Hamnet and the absence of her playwright husband in London. Shakespeare himself is never referred to by his name and is given very little agency in the narrative, a bold move that mostly works, however the novel often becomes much more vital when he is around.

I struggled with Hamnet. Initially I was drawn in by O'Farrell's sumptuous style and fine descriptive powers, but as the novel progressed I became much less engaged. I came to the conclusion that although the novel was a fine piece of work, it just wasn't for me, yet I had to read it for the library's book club. This disinterest unfortunately highlighted the novel's flaws, rather than its strengths. O'Farrell goes to great lengths to give Agnes a fully rounded character and a determined agency over her world, which is absolutely valid, however at times this came across as forced and unnecessarily mystical in nature (Agnes is depicted as having prophetic and intuitive powers). Often scenes that were meant to be poignant dragged due to excessive detail and repetitious interior monologues (Agnes). Ultimately I found Hamnet to be rather dull, only engaging my full interest for short periods. To be fair, O'Farrell has fashioned a fine novel, including an engaging section describing the journey of a flea that brought the plague to Stratford and an emotionally resonate final section that revealed just how Shakespeare may have coped with the passing of his only son. Hamnet is worth your time if you love historical fiction that effectively evokes its times and gives flesh to little known characters, so don't necessarily be put off by my lukewarm response, read it and decide for yourself.