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Monday, 27 July 2015

To Read a Mockingbird?



'Daddy, they are making me read this boring book at school!'


With the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015) setting literary hearts a flutter To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is in heavy demand at the library. I assume that many people would be re-reading the novel before they tackle Go Set a Watchman. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, but that was way back in high school when I was fifteen. I’ve often thought that classics or modern classics are perhaps wasted on mostly uninterested teenagers. Harper Lee's novel certainly tested the limits of my interest at the time.

Other books I read at school were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). I remember finding Hemingway to be boring, but Huxley and Orwell made a more positive impact, perhaps because I was already reading science fiction. With this in mind I’ve been wondering whether I should read these novels again. I have no doubt that I would read them in a completely different way now, mostly because my perspective has been radically changed by experience and the passage of time.

Coincidentally I have also been thinking about re-reading Douglas Adam’s The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series. Would they be as brilliant and funny to the adult me as they were to the teenage me? Could a reversal of perspective occur? Would I like Harper Lee and her ilk now and not like Douglas Adams as much as when I was a teenager? It’s quite possible, but perhaps the real question is am I willing to use valuable reading time in order to find out; particularly when I have unread classic novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea (1978) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) sitting on my bookshelf. That’s right, I’m yet to read Catch-22, but if only it had been on my high school curriculum...

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson (1994)








When Snow Falling on Cedars was published in 1994 it very quickly became a bestseller, going on to shift over four million copies. There was something about the tale set on an island just north of Seattle in the 1950’s that caught the imagination, but just what was it? Before I began reading the novel, required reading for the book club, there were two consistent responses from people who had read it already: that it was a great read, or that it was slow and boring. Curiously this was the exact same response from people who had seen the movie based on the book that came out in 1999. I steeled myself for 400 pages of boredom, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised and whilst the novel is by no means a work of genius it turns out that it is certainly a worthwhile read.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a post WWII courtroom drama that revolves around the nexus of the death of salmon fisherman Carl Heine. Fellow fisherman and childhood friend, Kabuo Miyamoto, is accused of murdering Heine after island sheriff Art Moran and his deputy pull the body of Heine from his own fishing nets. The aftermath of the war hangs heavily over the fictional island of San Piedro, which provides a beautifully brooding winter setting for the plot that quite skillfully explores the themes of racism, love, cultural identity and the impact of history on the individual.

The narrative consists of a range of back stories that gradually illuminate the present time (1954) and the court case itself. The narrative pace is slow and the style is realist; almost a throwback to nineteenth century realism. There’s great attention to detail and scenes are set with the utmost care, in particular the courtroom scenes. The overall effect is one of absorption rather than of boredom and I found myself wondering just how Guterson was making me so interested in small island life, salmon fishing and the cultivation of strawberries. Although some characters flirted with stereotype, in particular the Japanese inhabitants and the stoically brooding Carl Heine, they are alive on the page. It’s the synergy of many otherwise banal elements that makes Snow Falling on Cedars a satisfying novel to read.

If Snow Falling on Cedars were published today would it be a success? The novel is by no means innovative or difficult and basically tells a solid story in an evocative way, yet I don’t think that it would appeal to many younger readers who demand a narrative to reveal more sooner rather than later. Perhaps the modern day tendency toward narrative greed is too great for patience to triumph; a notion that is given credence by the fact that even the judges of the Man Booker Prize are talking about rewarding books with a narrative that zips along. The tension between what readers want and what writers produce has always been an important factor in the evolution of the novel and it should be fascinating to observe what happens as we shift from the Gutenberg mind to the digital mind.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje (1976)



Buddy Bolden is standing second from the left.





Charles Joseph Bolden (Buddy Bolden) is credited as being a principal originator of jazz, a new form of music that emerged in the dying years of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Bolden and his band played ragtime, added some blues and gospel elements and most importantly improvisation, which lies at the heart of jazz. This kind of historical knowledge about the origins of jazz, in particular narrowing it down to one man, is like finding the source of a great river that begins as a trickle before winding down the slopes of great mountains, through crazy rapids and into massive cataracts of water before spilling into a sea of infinite possibilities. Jazz truly is something wild and, even now, untamed; drawn deep from the inner creative soul of humankind. Ondaatje’s portrayal of Buddy Bolden and his milieu is like the above grainy black and white photo come to life and examined from multiple viewpoints.

Coming Through Slaughter is structured like jazz, with a narrative arc that is fragmented into vignettes that continually lead back to the main narrative motif. That motif is the life of of Buddy Bolden and his sudden disappearance. Bolden abandons both his life in New Orleans and his band apparently due to the onset of schizophrenia that eventually led to his incarceration in an old civil war asylum near the town of Slaughter in 1907, where he finally died aged 54 in 1931. Not a great deal is known about the life of Bolden accept a few fairly concrete facts coupled with a great deal of myth and conjecture. There aren’t even any recordings of Bolden and his band in existence, although there are rumors of recordings on cylinders that weren’t made for general consumption and ended up in the hands of collectors, although none have ever surfaced. Much of what occurs in the novel is therefore either exaggerated or fictionalized, however this benefits Ondaatje and allows Bolden and New Orleans to really come alive.

What Ondaatje offers is historical conjecture filtered through experiments with narrative form, such as switching without warning from a third person omniscient point of view to the first person point of view Bolden himself. Text from interviews (probably not real) and descriptions of films are some of the other forms used. To Ondaatje’s credit this narrative blend works well to give a fascinating take on Bolden and the birth of jazz. Central to the novel is the only surviving photograph of Bolden, along with his band, taken by E.J. Bellocq, the photographer known for his images of prostitutes (he’s portrayed here as a hydrocephalic). There’s an inferred connection between Bolden and Bellocq that seems to suggest that artistic brilliance is the domain of those who suffer, a tragic subtext that gives the novel emotional frisson.

Despite the brevity of Coming Through Slaughter and its unorthodox structure, it’s an absorbing read. The novel is regarded as one of the best jazz novels (is that a genre?) and jazz aficionados should certainly give it a read. I can’t help but feel that Bolden is too good to be true, a wild blower of the cornet, pioneer of the kind of inspirational improvisation that would establish jazz as one the great musical genres and sufferer of a mental illness that would be both his undoing and perhaps also his source of inspiration. If Bolden didn’t really exist then someone would have to make him up, and in a way that’s exactly what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The First Bad Man - Miranda July (2015)





Miranda July is a renaissance woman who’s career has encompassed film, music, performance art, directing, acting and writing. I first encountered Miranda July via her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which turned out to be a brilliant encapsulation of what July is all about. Her style is self consciously arty and kooky and explores psychological themes such as neurotic behavior and social awkwardness whilst also flirting with existentialism. July manages to successfully skirt the fine line between pretension and authentic emotional connection and when she is on the money this approach works extremely well, but when she isn’t there can be a strong whiff of mawkishness. Although July’s work is somewhat of an acquired taste, The First Bad Man mostly hits the mark nicely.

The First Bad Man’s
principle protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a typical July character; Cheryl is plain, awkward, neurotic and has a decidedly kooky outlook on life. Initially both the character of Cheryl and July’s writing grates with neurotic self-consciousness, but fortunately before long Cheryl becomes endearing and at the same time the novel begins to venture down some untrodden narrative pathways. The First Bad Man contains the only portrayal of a female misogynist that I’m aware of, although I’m sure there’s more out there in the wild world of literature. Cheryl’s unwanted house-guest, a young woman called Clee, is the instigator of one of the most unusual and ultimately affecting relationships I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Clee is young, beautiful and buxom, but has unbearable foot odor, questionable personal habits and behaves in an unreasonably aggressive manner toward Cheryl. However as the novel progresses Clee transforms Cheryl’s life in unexpectedly positive ways.

The First Bad Man evoked a wide range of emotional responses; at times I was frustrated at Cheryl’s inability to engage with life in a functional manner, yet I was also appalled at the treatment meted out by Clee. I ended up being entirely caught up in Cheryl’s life and found myself desperately hoping that everything would work out for her. Having seen her films I couldn’t help but picture July as Cheryl throughout the narrative, but fortunately this worked for me. July clearly has a knack of exploring the more extreme elements of human psychology whilst also making the character sympathetic. Without this the novel could have very easily been an exercise in neurotic irritation, but instead it becomes an ultimately heartwarming story. Also I’m sucker for a novel with a reference to David Bowie; in this case his song ‘Kooks’ is used as a mental tool for stopping obsessive behavior.

As with July’s films, The First Bad Man is not for everyone, in fact many readers may not be able to stomach her unique take on human psychology and her idiosyncratic writing style. Personally by the end of the novel I wasn’t ready to let go of Cheryl Glickman; I’d become as attached to her as she was to Kubelko Bondy, and that’s really saying something. Who’s Kubelko Bondy? You’ll have to read the novel to find out, and besides, Cheryl would love you to join her in her lover’s story, you won’t be sorry....







Miranda July, looking suitably kooky

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1992)








The Secret History is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it (I blame myself naturally). Curiously during the last twenty three years I’ve had a strange kind of shadow relationship with the novel; periodically I’d see a reference to it, or spot it in amongst a friend’s collection of books. Once I found a copy in the back yard of a house I was looking to rent, soggy from the rain that had passed overhead that day (it was unreadable of course). I’d overhear people talking about it in a cafe or I’d see a random picture of Tartt, a mysterious literary figure with her own striking sartorial style. In my mind an aura of mysterious allure surrounded both the book and the author and I knew that I would actually read it one day. Finally, having now read the novel, I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint.

In hindsight I realize that in being inexorably drawn to The Secret History I had something in common with narrator Richard Papen, who couldn’t resist the singular pull of the charismatic and exclusive coterie of Greek classics students taught by the enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. The alluring yet morally ambiguous world of the coldly intellectual Henry Winter, the debonair Francis Abernathy, the aloof twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay and the larger than life Bunny Corcoran was hard to resist. Tartt handles this ensemble of twenty-something students deftly and despite their arrogant elitism and murdering ways you really hope they literally get away with murder. This is undoubtedly authorial manipulation at its highest level.

As I was reading The Secret History I kept on marveling at just how a novel that reveals who is murdered and by whom right at the beginning can be so compelling. Of course there is the enticement of wanting to know why and how these characters were driven to murder, but ultimately it is novel’s tightly wound narrative tension and Tartt's coolly elegant prose that creates such a compelling novel. Tartt’s style is self consciously literary, yet she doesn’t overdo it, even though she regularly spreads baubles of linguistic beauty throughout the narrative. Tartt’s writing is so disciplined that she is able to make even the most mundane aspects of the narrative totally absorbing.

The characters are psychologically fascinating and the knowledge that there are mysteriously nefarious events going on in the background that will eventually be revealed creates exquisite tension. The novel is set in Vermont in the north east of America, providing an appropriately somber yet lush atmosphere of ornate campus buildings and autumnal forests for the plot’s tragic trajectory to play out in. Also impressive is Tartt’s ability to depict a realistic male narrator. Richard Papen’s psychological foibles are entirely convincing; his relationships with women, his insecurities and how he approaches life are all relatable to the reader, something that also applies to all of the characters, despite their individual eccentricities.

Reading The Secret History is like being seduced by someone who is extremely erudite, intelligent, mysterious and beautiful. It’s extremely addictive and wholly satisfying. I could barely put this book down, I read it on the train, late at night at home and on a camping trip; thinking about it obsessively as I climbed the peaks of the Stirling Ranges in the Australian autumn. It took ten years after the publication of The Secret History for Tartt’s next novel to emerge (The Little Friend - 2002) and then another eleven years for the Pulitzer prize winner The Goldfinch (2013). Fortunately I’m yet to read either of these novels. All that’s left to say at this point is that I’m grateful I’m not having to wait another ten years to read another Donna Tartt novel.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Solar Lottery - Philip K. Dick (1955)








The debut novel of any significant author is always a fascinating prospect, particularly after most of their later works have already been read. Solar Lottery reveals that Philip K. Dick arrived nearly fully formed, with many of his typical obsessive thematic threads featuring strongly.  Although Solar Lottery is certainly flawed and is not up there amongst his finest works, it still stands out due to Dick’s unique vision and writing style. When you read a Philip K. Dick novel you know that you are in for a weird time and Solar Lottery does not disappoint.

Solar Lottery is set hundreds of years in the future and humanity has colonized much of the solar system. This future solar civilization is ruled by a person selected at random by a computer generated lottery to hold the title of Quizmaster. Although governed by the Quizmaster, society is dominated by powerful corporations and most humans survive by pledging allegiance to both corporations and individuals. Ted Benteley, a typical Dick everyman, is dismissed from a corporation he hates, allowing him to attempt to work for the current Quizmaster - Reese Verrick. He succeeds only to learn that Verrick has been usurped by Leon Cartwright. Cartwright is also the leader of a society that follows the theories of John Preston, who’s life’s work focused on finding the legendary outer planet known as Flame Disc. Dick’s typically paranoid and cynical version of future humanity also involves sanctioned assassination attempts on the new Quizmaster and the unfortunate Benteley becomes embroiled in Verrick’s attempt to assassinate Cartwright. The novel’s convoluted plot is a bit creaky in places, but Dick ultimately manages to pull off what seems like two short stories melded into one narrative.


Solar Lottery features many of the tropes that would feature heavily in Philip K. Dick novels to come. Flying cars feature briefly, (but they don’t give unsolicited advice...), there’s controlling corporations, altered consciousness, telepaths, an android and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Typically for a Philip K. Dick novel there is a lot going on for what’s only a short novel and at times the narrative pace is frantic. At this early stage Dick’s writing style features abrupt segues and some pretty unnatural dialogue, however inadvertently these stylistic flaws create a hyper-real tone to the narrative that’s in keeping with Dick’s obsession with replicated or altered reality. The novel does have a pulpy tone, but Dick’s ideas are, as usual, intriguing and weird; exploring deeper themes than the average action oriented pulp novel from that era. I wonder how readers would have reacted to this novel back in 1955?

Although future novels would be superior both stylistically and thematically, Solar Lottery is well worth reading for any Dick-head. Dick would go on to craft an extraordinary body of work that would prove to be both prescient and highly influential. Dick was a unique voice and it’s such a pity that his lifestyle choices (including over a decade of abuse of legally sourced amphetamines) led to an early demise in 1982. In keeping with Dick’s vision, perhaps one day we’ll have a replicant Philip K. Dick AI churning out new novels for our amazement. Now that’s something I’d like to see.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (2013)








Richard Flanagan, deserving winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, was inspired by his father’s experiences as a WWII POW on the Thailand - Burma death railway to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It took Flanagan twelve years and a multitude of drafts to complete. Flanagan’s father passed away on the very day it was finished, as if finally released from the burden of history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North deserves to become a modern classic both for its unflinching depiction of humanity at war and for the quality of Flanagan’s prose.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is divided into sections featuring short chapters that move through various time periods before and after the war, most featuring the novel’s principal protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. In contrast the middle section is dominated by a depiction of the horror of the death railway across two days; it is both unrelentingly bleak and emotionally draining. Flanagan’s writing is subtle but powerful, creating a profound sense of being right there with the POWs in the steaming disease ridden jungle suffering from the cruelty of both the guards and the work itself. This is by far the most visceral depiction of the horrors of war I have ever read. The reality of the death railway is both surreal and medieval in its varied cruelties and appropriately at one point Dorrigo alludes to the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno (1317) when referring to the ulcer ward.

Flanagan’s decision to utilize a linear narrative for most of the death railway section allows it to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. To be faced with chapter after chapter of the horrors of ‘the line’ and ‘the speedo’ makes for an extremely challenging read. This is leavened somewhat by a multitude of superbly written scenes throughout the novel; from a young Dorrigo marking a football in the playground, to his fellow POW survivors drunkenly smashing into a Hobart fish and chip shop to free the fish ‘imprisoned’ in the fish tank to honor their fallen comrade Darky Gardiner. Generally Flanagan’s depiction of character psychology is mostly inspired, but at times he overdoes it, extending paragraphs detailing a character’s mental and emotional states to almost unbearable lengths. This tendency to be slightly long-winded is perhaps the novel’s only flaw, although it is easily overlooked when considering the overall brilliance of the novel.

Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and former commanding officer, now in his seventies, leaves a scene of infidelity, forgetting his book of Japanese death poems. Significantly the Japanese commanders at the POW camp discuss their love of Japanese literature, most notably Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), an account of his epically dangerous journey by foot into the interior of Japan. Basho writes that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Although ostensibly Flanagan’s novel is about war and its affect on those involved, the reference to Basho reveals deeper meanings; perhaps obviously as a metaphor for the POWs dangerous journey through the jungle building the railway, but more philosophically as an analogy for each individual’s journey through life. The novel traces many lives, including, in one of the novel’s masterstrokes, the Japanese officers in the decades after the war. It also serves as a reminder that literature, as an expression of humanity, both illuminates and obfuscates the ‘truth’ and that the ‘truth’ is more often than not subjective at best.


Although The Narrow Road to the Deep North was selected to read for the Subiaco Library book club in January, the meeting coincidentally fell in the week leading up to ANZAC day. I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day; it is undoubtedly important to remember those who went to war, but there is also the tendency for nationalism and subtle glorification to creep into our remembrances. Fortunately Flanagan’s novel does not view the past in black and white terms, rather it reminds us that humanity is flawed and war is an extreme expression of our folly. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is so thematically rich and profoundly humane it should become mandatory reading not just in Australia, but throughout the world.