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Sunday, 28 June 2020

Before the Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

Rating: Mediocre

I've read quite a bit of Japanese fiction and I love the spare, poetic prose and the unique narrative forms that are often employed by many Japanese authors. Before the Coffee Gets Cold looked promising, with an intriguing time-travel premise. In a small, very old Tokyo cafe you can sit with a coffee and travel back in time, but you can only stay as long as the coffee remains warm, and if you don't drink it before it gets cold then you are trapped in time. It turns out that there is much more to it than that, but unfortunately it also turns out that this novel is fatally flawed. Firstly Before the Coffee Gets Cold very obviously suffers from having been adapted from a play and then translated into English. The prose is stilted to the extent that I could almost be willing to believe that it was written by a wooden post. The first section - 'The Lovers', is frustrating to read due to a great deal of hesitant and fragmented dialogue, one dimensional characters and, to be frank, a flirtation with sheer narrative tedium.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold does improve gradually, with some reasonably believable emotional scenes between husband and wives, two sisters and, lastly, a mother and child. The main characters are fleshed out slightly more, but the dialogue remained very stilted, resulting in a low ceiling for sympathetic connection with the characters and their various travails. One intriguing character, who is a ghost, forever trapped somewhere in-between the past and the present (I assume...), but occupying the very seat that allows time travel, could have presented an opportunity for some fascinating narrative possibilities, however she was underused and remained merely a narrative device. I'm certain that performed as a play the novel's themes of fate, tragedy and the healing opportunity afforded by a change of attitude, would have come across much better, but as a novel it totally fails to convince.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Charles Bukowski - Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters 1963-1993 - Edited by David Stephen Calonne (2003)

Rating: Excellent

Most regular readers of this blog would be aware of my love for Bukowski's writing. I've read most of his most important works, but I also have quite a few books like this one laying around, in this case for about a decade! Sunlight Here I Am is a great idea executed well; a collection, in chronological order, of interviews with Bukowski, ranging from his very first interview in 1963 and ending with his very last in in 1993. Calonne notes that while this is not all of the interviews with Bukowski, it features many of the best ones. It's a beautiful book, well laid out and featuring drawings by the man himself and a selection of photographs not seen elsewhere. From the first interview there comes a realisation that Bukowski is fully formed, already displaying his perceptive and blunt point of view, holding forth regarding the highs and lows of his life so far and the nature of poetry. There is a definite pattern across all thirty six interviews, the interviewer notes Bukowski's reputation (often followed by an admission as to their trepidation meeting him), Bukowski talks about his past (this aspect becomes repetitious - an unavoidable inherent flaw) and then there is a fascinating discussion that varies depending on the era the interview takes place.

What emerges out of all these interviews is that both Bukowski is as you'd expect him to be, but also there are plenty of surprises even for the hard core Bukowski fan. The fact that Bukowski was such a booze-hound coupled with his disdain of following any cultural trend meant that I was amazed to discover that he smoked grass quite regularly and that he tried LSD and magic mushrooms on a number of occasions. Although his thoughts regarding sex and women are more sophisticated that his detractors would have you believe, his views on politics and philosophy is typically blunt, as is his tendency toward misanthropy. Generally it's a real treat to read Bukowski in full flow and he pretty much provides great copy on most occasions. Along the way you also discover what he thinks of other past and contemporaneous writers, that he felt that his balls were the biggest going around, that he admired Frank Zappa, but regarded both Paul McCartney and John Lennon with disdain; that he hung out with Sean Penn who brought his then girlfriend, no other than Madonna herself, around for a visit! Bukowski notes that when he intimated that Madonna was pretentious Penn bristled with anger but backed down when Bukowski said that Penn knew deep down that he could take him (resulting in Bukowski liking Penn even more...). Such highlights mean that Sunlight Here I Am is well worth tracking down for any Bukowski fan, not only because it is pure Bukowski, but also for the unique insight it provides into one of America's greatest writers.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Rating: Excellent

My finger isn't exactly on the pulse when it comes to Alastair Reynolds; twenty years after Revelation Space was published and after about eight years of having it sitting on my shelf, I've finally read it. It would have been okay if I was aboard a lighthugger in a reefersleep capsule traveling near the speed of light, then perhaps only a year would have passed. In any case, I digress before I've even began, which leads me to perhaps the novel's only significant flaw: Reynolds tendency to pack in the detail, extrapolating wherever possible. Fortunately the majority of the time such narrative indulgences are either entertaining or actually do service the novel's world-building, however on occasions one wishes that a ride in a shuttle was just a short segue to greater things, rather than a chance for a character to mull over a multitude of possibilities. That aside, Revelation Space is brilliant hard science fiction, with a compelling plot that doesn't give up its mysteries right till the end and an ensemble of characters who both fascinate and confound. I've read some criticisms regarding the characters sometimes one-dimensional personalities, but I figure that humans five hundred years into the future who augment themselves with AI implants and live in extreme environments would be as consistently intense as many of these freaky characters.

Revelation Space has all the ingredients of modern space opera, yet manages to make something fresh (or it did 20 years ago), invigorating and decidedly Gothic in nature. Featuring three intertwining narrative strands that coalesce around the Resurgam system, where humanity has discovered an ancient alien civilization that has been eradicated by a suspiciously timed 'Event', the novel fluctuates in intensity as the plot unfolds, mostly switching between the monomania of the eccentric but brilliant scientist Dan Sylveste, and the crew of 'Ultras' who inhabit the 'lighthugger' Nostalgia for Infinity (such names are no doubt a nod to Iain M. Banks...). Although the Ultras themselves are a compelling bunch, led partly by the hard-nosed Russianesque Ilia Volyova, it is the machines that inhabit the Revelation Space universe that enthrall. Nostalgia for Infinity is one cool ship, powerful yet decaying; virtually a skyscraper sized spaceship packed full of mysterious chambers and a gunnery full of weird alien weapons. Oh, and did I mention Sunstealer, the Gothic monstrosity that inhabits the gunnery's computer systems? There's so much packed into this novel that it can't help but be impressive, both conceptually and stylistically, but no doubt if you are a science fiction fan you would have read Revelation Space already, if not, don't wait as long as I did. Now, onto the other novels in the series (at some stage...).

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Running Dog - Don DeLillo (1978)

Rating: Excellent

Don DeLillo is one of my all time favourite novelists and I have deliberately not rushed to read all of his novels so that I can always have some lurking there waiting for when I feel that certain itch to immerse myself in his unique narrative style. DeLillo wrote two of the great post-modernist novels, one could even call them guidebooks to post-modernist thought - White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997). Running Dog does not scale the lofty heights of those two novels, but it does deliver enough intellectual DeLillo thrills to illicit a certain literary smug satisfaction. Running Dog features a typical DeLillo premise: various shady factions maneuvering to get their hands on a film that purports to contain footage of Nazi's getting up to carnal naughtiness in the last days in Hitler's bunker as the Soviets creep ever closer. DeLillo pulls the reader into this circle of lust over the film, making you want to see and know just as much as the next nefarious 'businessman'.

Typically for a DeLillo novel Running Dog has an ensemble cast of characters, rather than one main protagonist leading the way. This is certainly not a weakness due to DeLillo's ability to bring alive the psychological core of a character in a just a few lines - "He appeared younger than twenty-two, looking a little like a teenager with a nervous disability. High forehead, prominent cheekbones, large teeth. He seemed intense, over-committed to something, his voice keening out of a lean bony face..." Coupled with DeLillo's dialogue, which is stripped down, yet bursting with a deeper complexity, irony and a rhetorical self awareness, the novel can't help but to delight. I burst out laughing a number of times, including after the very last line, which is a difficult thing for a novelist to achieve. Even more effective is the realisation that if the premise of the existence of an amateur Nazi porn film wasn't disturbing enough, the reality of what actually is on the film has its own subtly disturbing implications. I thoroughly enjoyed Running Dog at a time when I really needed something to take me away from our current reality, which, as we all know, has its own disturbing implications. I have no doubt that DeLillo will be one of those authors who pen a post-plague novel in the tradition of many great novelists.

Friday, 17 April 2020

The Constant Gardener - John le Carre (2001)

Rating: Admirable

I had high hopes for The Constant Gardener when it was picked as a book club read due to the fact that in recent times I have had an urge to read novels from genres that I am not usually attracted too. John le Carre is famous for his espionage novels such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and although this novel is described as a thriller I was hoping for some intense duplicity and entertaining action sequences. The novel is set in Nairobi and takes in the British diplomatic set, morally compromised doctors and drug researchers, ruthless pharmaceutical companies and Tessa Quayle, a beautiful (of course) lawyer and social activist who stirs the hornets nest of all of the above and pays a grisly price.

The Constant Gardener begins promisingly, with the pompous and narcissistic character of Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat, leading the way. Unfortunately Woodrow is not the main protagonist of this well written but ultimately flawed novel, rather it is the British horticulture loving Justin Quayle, older husband of the problematic Tessa. Perhaps the greatest flaw is that Justin is a character lacking depth and spark, which somewhat squanders the reader’s inclination to sympathize with his predicament. Ultimately the novel is just too long and has too many lengthy scenes with characters endlessly conversing, in particular there a number tedious police interview scenes, resulting in less than sparkling dialogue. There are also long tracts of official documentation that does not make for enthralling reading. In addition there are too few scenes in which there is a ratcheting up of narrative tension, which the novel sorely needed. Despite the novel's flaws le Carre is obviously a classy writer who boasts a significant reputation, so I’m sure that some of his other novels are much better than The Constant Gardener.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings / 2005-09 - Robert Forster (2009)

Rating: Excellent

For those who do not know who Robert Forster is (shame on you...), he was part of one of Australia's greatest songwriting partnerships with Grant McLennan in The Go-Betweens. As previously mentioned on this blog, Forster can really write, and The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll was a joy to read due to his gentle erudite wit, carefully crafted turn of phrase and in many of these critical pieces, an unexpected generosity even to those subjects who exist on the other-side of the rock and roll spectrum from Forster and his ilk. A good example is his review of a Delta Goodrem album called, imaginatively, Delta (2008), written, as with many of the selections here, for the quality left-wing Australian magazine The Monthly. Forster treats his subject seriously and in the process reveals some interesting insights into how the multi producer approach, pitting each producer against the other in order to result in as many hit singles as possible, has rendered countless albums bereft of "Flow, experimentation and fun..." One of the tests of good writing is if the author can make a subject you have no interest in fascinating, and Forster does this many times throughout this collection.

Although some of the subjects Forster wrote about here were not in my usual field of interest there are plenty that are, such as Bonnie Prince Billy, The Shins and Brian Ferry, but that's not all, the collection also covers books, such as Mark Seymour's Thirteen Tonne Theory (2008) and concerts, with the most interesting being Nana Mouskouri's farewell tour! There's also some short essays, such as The Velvet Underground's influence on The Go-Betweens and the Credence Clearwater Revival song Have You Ever Seen the Rain? The best of Forster's other writings is the two pieces on the passing of McLennan, which cannot help but be poignant, although Forster's quality prose really shines though here. The book ends with a fascinating section entitled - The 10 Bands I Wish I'd Been In, and there's some curious selections, such as Peter Paul and Mary and The Great Society; but also some that are understandable - The Band 1967, The Wailers 1972, Talking Heads 1975 and Bowie and The Hype 1971 (Bowie's pre-Spiders band).

I don't normally quote too much from the books I read, but I'm going to present here Forster's 10 rules of rock and roll, as featured at the beginning of the book, and my comments about each rule. I'll then present my own 10 rules of rock and roll, from the point of view of a music obsessive, rather than that of a musician.

Robert Forster's 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as 'dark'.

Fair enough I guess, but why? Are such artists too pretentious or are they against the spirit of rock and roll?

2. The second-last song on every album is the weakest.

Initially I thought that this rule was spurious to say the least, however thinking about it I conceded that Forster could have a point; where would you put the weakest track? You wouldn't put it first, or second (you need that one-two punch to open with), you wouldn't end an LP side with it, and it certainly would not be the last track on the album. You wouldn't open the second side with it either, but it could maybe be the second track on the second side, or the third? However if you do place it second last overall and have a fantastic track to finish with the listener will forget that the second last track is weaker than the rest, instead they'll remember the last track and therefore, as an extension, the album as a whole.

3. Great bands tend to look alike.

In what way? Clothes? Haircuts? Height? Looks? I can think of some examples - The Monkies, The Small Faces,  The Byrds, The maybe Forster has a point.

4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.

I have no doubt!

5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.

Absolutely correct!

6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.

Quite possibly, but what about Bowie's on stage innovations over the years?

7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.

Fair enough, but what about alternate tunings? Twelve string guitars?

8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.

Until they sack them!

9. Great bands don't have members making solo albums.

Whilst their band is fully operational I take it? Makes sense, but Steve Kilbey from The Church is an exception to this rule.

10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

What about The White Stripes?

My 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Any genre that begins with the word Nu is reprehensible.

2. The Velvet Underground are the most influential band in rock and roll.

3. The intersection between the intellect and the primal is where the greatest rock and roll lies - i.e. Iggy Pop/The Stooges.

4. The 1970s was the greatest overall decade of rock and roll and music in general.

5. The four-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression (two guitarists is best).

6. Psychedelia is the most fecund rock and roll genre.

7. To be a truly great rock and roll band a truly great drummer is essential.

8. The greatest bands have an essential chemistry between the members - no band member can be replaced successfully.

9. The Pixies in their heyday were the last truly original rock and roll band.

10. Bowie.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Space Ark - Thomas Huschman (1981)

Rating: Mediocre

After the intense intellectual stimulation of Slavoj Zizek I needed something light and easy, so I reached for Space Ark (say it loud with lots of echo...), a book I found in a curio shop in Mt Barker in the heart of the south west of Australia, the kind of shop that sells all the stuff your grandma had plus records and books. As I had hoped Space Ark is pure pulp science fiction and was thoroughly relaxing and entertaining. They really don't write them like this anymore; I doubt any novels in recent decades would open with the lines: "Morning sunlight streamed in through the big cathedral windows. Twenty mental retards were at play on the smooth, polished floor." Three hundred years in humanity's future a scientist with the snappy name of Centaurus has discovered that a nearby supernova will shortly decimate Earth, but when he reports this to the Earth system president, Hassim Dupre, he is locked up and the information is suppressed. Hubschman makes a point of revealing how the powers that be distrust what the science says in order to protect the status quo of their power hungry and corrupt government - sounds familiar? Replace climate change with the supernova and you have a pulp science fiction novel for our times.

Centaurus is rescued from his incarceration by one of the mental retards (who's just faking it...) and is given a lift on a makeshift space ark, complete with animals and a leader who is actually a Simminoid, an ape who has been given human hands and has had human DNA spliced into his makeup to make him into an intelligent slave (this is a thing three hundred years from now). Of course they leave in the nick of time, only to discover that they are being pursued by Dupre and his military space ships. The novel basically becomes a sometimes tense chase narrative and as these kinds of stories go it is entertaining enough. What lets the novel down is its rather simple dialogue and a narrative that is light on explication. The space ark travels "...away from the sun at better than the speed of light-quite a bit better...", but no attempt is made to explain how this is done. Elsewhere it is indicated that Einstein's theory of relativity has been superseded, apparently by the return of Newtonian theories! Towards the novel's denouement a hopeless situation is rectified by an ex machina plot device that is cliched to say the least. This leads to an ending with mystical overtones that I both appreciated and groaned about. I'm probably being a bit unfair with my rating for Space Ark, as it provided me with great entertainment, but when comparing it to other great science fiction novels and writers it suffers in comparison, so my Simminoid hand is forced.