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Monday, 31 August 2015

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)








The Leopard is considered to be one of the greatest novels in Italian literature and also one of the greatest historical novels. Despite initially being rejected by several publishing houses the novel went on to both be critically lauded and commercially successful, going on to sell over three million copies. The Leopard was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed film by Luchino Visconti in 1963. Set between 1860 and 1910, the novel explores the political changes brought about by the unification of Italy and explores the themes of mortality and the power of historical change over the individual, mostly from the perspective of Prince Fabrizio Cornbana, a character based on Lampedusa’s grandfather.

Before tackling The Leopard I’d advise reading something about the history of Italy during this period in order to at least understand the basics, as it will greatly enhance reading enjoyment. Like much of Europe Italy underwent the ructions of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the process of the unification of Italy’s disparate states was played out in Sicily when Giuseppe Garibaldi’s forces, known as ‘The Thousand’, invaded the island which led to the eventual capitulation of its incumbent rulers. The Prince, although outwardly powerful both in stature and wealth, is a melancholic figure who is more interested in astronomy than his duty to the realm. As the revolution happens he merely accepts its inevitability and carries on as before, although he is forced to head the famous words of his rebellious nephew, Tancredi, that “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”; a quote that escaped the confines of the novel to become somewhat of a cliche.

Ultimately whether or not you enjoy The Leopard depends on what you want from a novel. Those who appreciate beautiful well crafted prose would certainly find much to admire. Outwardly nothing much seems to happen plot wise as the majority of the Garabaldi led revolution occurs off stage. Instead there is a subtle exploration of decadence, mortality and a very European ennui. The Prince Fabrizio Cornbana may be wealthy, but he is trapped in a stifling world of nobility that he often feels alienated from and instead he prefers such intellectual pursuits as astronomy and mathematics. Those who enjoy history being brought alive will also find much to enjoy; Lampedusa encapsulates the landscape of Sicily and its history in a way that somehow engages all of the senses. In essence the novel is both intellectual and sensual, wholly succeeding in its portrayal of individuals being swept up by events mostly beyond their control.


Despite The Leopard’s obvious qualities and its reputation as a significant work in the canon of European literature, I did not fully engage with the novel. Although the prose is certainly beautiful, stylistically it has more in common with nineteenth century literature than that of the first fifty years of the twentieth century, something that perhaps caused my interest to wane at regular intervals. Overall it was very much the case of appreciating rather than enjoying The Leopard, which is no doubt sacrilege to a significant amount of admirers of the novel who read it at least once a year and claim it as one of their all time favourite books.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Seven Eves - Neal Stephenson (2015)








Parts 1 & 2

Seven Eves is my first Neal Stephenson novel, which means that I’m possibly arriving later to his work than pretty much everyone else interested in speculative fiction. I’ve been meaning to read his cyberpunk masterpiece Snow Crash (1992) for years now, but for some reason it has always passed me by. Seven Eves is an epic novel, both thematically and physically and consequently I’ve had to abandon it two thirds of the way through in order to start reading the diametrically opposite The Leopard (1958) by the gloriously named Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in order to be prepared to run the upcoming book clubs at the library later this month. So rather than wait almost a month to talk about Seven Eves I thought I’d start with the first two parts.

Essentially Seven Eves is an apocalyptic novel that begins literally on page one with the moon blowing up due to a passing micro black hole, referred to as ‘the agent’. (I’m not really giving anything away here by the way...). Seven Eves is set in a near future in which the U.S president is female, the international space station, which is attached to an asteroid, is still in operation and technology is marginally more advanced than present times. Parts one and two detail the desperate two year effort by humanity to get enough people into space to survive the destruction of the biosphere by what is termed as the ‘hard rain’, which is the fall of millions of destabilized chunks of the shattered moon.

The novel’s premise is brilliant in its simplicity and the first two thirds mostly lives up to this initial promise. The science in Seven Eves' fiction is resolutely hard and although this helps in the credulity stakes Stephenson’s tendency to go into long detailed explanations means that some sections become almost tedious. The inner geek within Stephenson obviously just can’t help himself. This is, fortunately, not a fatal flaw and the story gradually becomes more absorbing and exciting. Once the ‘hard rain’ begins and the narrative wholly focuses on the humans selected to survive in space the novel really kicks into gear.

Although Stephenson’s characterizations are not as brilliantly realized as a science fiction writer like Iain M. Banks, the principal protagonists are rounded enough for the reader to care about what happens to them. Perhaps the strongest are two female astronauts who are stationed on the ISS, asteroid researcher and robotic expert Dinah MacQuarie and Ivy Xiao, the commander of ISS. The rather extravagant figure of Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, a popularizer of science who first works out what the future holds for planet earth, is also a memorable character. Set against the inhospitable background of space, death, and techno-babble these characters provide an important focus. What eventually happens to them creates a great segue into part three: five thousand years later. I can’t wait....

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.