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Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Go-Betweens Anthology Volume 1: 1978-1984 - Robert Forster et al (2014)

The Go-Betweens back in the day - Forster front left, McLennan middle rear.

This book is only available as a part of The Go-Betweens box set: The Go-Betweens Anthology Volume 1: 1978-1984, although such is the quality of the writing I’m sure at some stage after the third volume is released it will all be published as a stand alone tome. The Go-Betweens formed in Brisbane in the late seventies and were nurtured within the punk/post-punk scene before emerging to become one of the most influential pop-rock bands of the nineteen eighties. Although mostly commercially unsuccessful at the time the band were the critics darlings and have since been rightly remembered as a great Australian band.

The Go-Betweens were a very literary band, so it was no surprise to learn that the two founding members, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, met whilst attending an English course at Queensland University in 1975. Inside the pages of this beautifully presented book the story of The Go-Betweens is cleverly retold by Forster in the third person with an immediacy and poignancy that is addictive to read. There’s a kind of romantic innocence about two awkward outsiders creating themselves as the rock equivalent of cult fiction. Whilst most Brisbane bands practiced noisy punk or rancid metal they wrote songs about librarians and faded movie stars. They casually self mythologized, labeling their music as “That striped sunlight sound”, giving them a certain level of pretension that worked both for and against them.

The book features archival photography from the band’s earliest days and ephemera such as gig posters, critical reviews and single covers. There are many choice items, such as a reproduction of a review of Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) written by McLennan whilst at university. There’s also a post-card sent by McLennan to Forster commenting on some demos the latter had sent hoping to pique the former’s interest. Forster’s brilliant anthology notes ends in 1984 and is followed by several essays by people who were associated with the band. There’s the obligatory detailed discography and then most surprising of all a section of Grant McLennan’s poems from that era, some of which are actually pretty good.

The music featured in what will be the first of three vinyl box sets is the sound of a band growing up in public; initially ramshackle but sometimes oddly brilliant, then flowering into sublimely evocative songs that connect both intellectually and emotionally. As brilliant as this box set is I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t manage to get my hands on one of the first 600 copies that contained a book from Grant McLennan’s massive personal library, all verified and signed by Forster and some with notes in the margins from McLennan himself (apparently there are another twelve hundred for the next two sets...). Sadly Grant McLennan died aged 48 in 2006. A few weeks before his death Forster and McLennan met for the last time, as recalled by Forster in this piece for The Monthly. As Forster was leaving McLennan’s house he pulled from the letterbox an issue of the New York Review of Books and commented that he didn’t know that McLennan had subscribed to that particular literary magazine. As Forster drove away he thought that McLennan was probably the only singer-songwriter or rock star who had such a subscription. I have no doubt that Forster’s assumption was correct, after all The Go-Betweens were that kind of band.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

A Brief History of the Future - Jacques Attali (2006)

I bought this book on a whim a year ago, having spied it on the shelves of one of my favourite bookstores, Diabolik. I thought I’d better read it before the future arrived, not realizing that it had been published in 2006! I’ve long been a sucker for any kind of media that attempted to forecast what the future may be like. We do seem to be on the cusp of massive changes on this planet, but just what will they be? Will it is be dystopia or utopia for humanity? Typically the future will probably be somewhere in-between these two extremes. When you pick up a book entitled A Brief History of the Future the expectation is that it will have at least some feasible answers. After all, according to the blurb on the back of the book Attali had previously predicted the financial rise of Asia, the advent of what he refers to as ‘nomadic technologies’ and the GFC. I approached this book with great enthusiasm, but unfortunately left it feeling underwhelmed and entertaining the thought that I would make a better futurist than the likes of Attali.

Attali notes in his forward that the shape of our future is being set by events and choices that we are making in the present; therefore logically past events have always set the future in motion. With this in mind he then proceeds with a potted history of the past, including when life itself emerged from the oceans and that momentous time when our ancestors first began to walk upright. This chapter reads like a highly generalized and accelerated version of prehistory, which unfortunately doesn’t give the reader much confidence in what will follow. There are also some glaring flaws, although they may well be caused by a fault in translation (Attali is French). Attali refers to the likes of Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis (and others) as primates, when I’m certain the correct term is hominids. Also some assertions are already dated, with Attali claiming that “All these primates - neighbors but not of kin - coexist without interbreeding.” In recent years a great deal of evidence has emerged that interbreeding between some hominids was occurring. These criticisms are perhaps unfair, however much more glaring is the total lack of referencing throughout this and the following chapter. Attali makes claim after claim regarding the lives and practices of early humans without citing any kind of reliable sources. Is it really “doubtless” that cannibalism began 300,000 years ago? And that around 160,000 years ago slavery began? What discoveries or research led to these notions? Are we just meant to take his word for it? (like I ask you to take mine?).

The long chapter entitled ‘A Brief History of Capitalism’ is far more coherent and persuasive, despite its lack of citations. Attali details the history of what he refers to as the mercantile order and suggests that as the mercantile order evolved over the centuries it fostered more and more individual freedoms and therefore became an engine of democracy. Attali’s principal argument focuses on the nine ‘cores’ of the mercantile order that have been at the forefront of capitalism over the centuries - Bruges, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and currently Los Angeles. This long chapter leads to, almost inevitably, a chapter entitled ‘The End of the American Empire’. Logically the evolution of capitalism over the centuries points to an inevitable decline in the dominant core, something that has happened again and again; mostly caused by internal dysfunctions, mainly financial, and challenges from the outside. Attali’s arguments are persuasive simply because it is all too easy to see past trends emerge again. He argues that as soon as post 2030 the “ninth form will have lived its day” and that America could become a Scandinavian style social democracy or a dictatorship. Well, we’ll see!

As to what comes next Attali points to three possible ‘waves of the future’ for this century: planetary empire, planetary war and planetary democracy. While it is too complex to adequately sum up how and why each wave could be possible there are a number of key points for each worth noting. Planetary empire involves a possible decoupling of the mercantile order from a central city core, becoming a roaming entity mostly via the borderless world wide web. Planetary war all too ominously involves multiple scenarios ranging from endless minor conflicts to all out war involving what he calls ‘pirate’ entities taking it up to the major powers. ISIS is certainly shaping up to be such an entity. Planetary democracy is, rather optimistically, the inevitable endgame for the century. While some of his arguments for this third wave are sound, some are also are also dubious. Attali cites the emergence of  ‘vanguard players’, or ‘trans-humans’; altruistic citizens that will “ relational enterprises in which profit will be no more than a hindrance, not a final goal.” The cynic in me can’t help but consider that this viewpoint is naively Utopian and that humanity will not be able to curb its self destructive impulses.

A Brief History of the Future is a moderately interesting book with some compelling ideas. Ultimately, however, the book is flawed, particularly the chapters that deal with the future, which simply make too many assumptions. It’s a tough business this futurism, but in a strange way Attali makes it appear that anyone with some understanding of history and capitalism could give it a go. I’m certainly ready and willing. I have a reasonable knowledge of emergent technologies and have a pretty good understanding of history and current events. Hey - I’m a futurist! Personally I believe that certain emergent technologies could completely alter society and what it is to be human, even more so than current computer technology coupled with the internet. If genuine AI technology is developed, possibly coupled with quantum computing, then that would be a huge game changer. If longevity drugs, now entering an exciting research and development phase, come to fruition, then society and the economy will be challenged with significant changes that have never been seen before. These three technologies (five actually - but don’t get me started on robotics and 3D printing) were touched on only briefly by Attali, leaving me to think that his vision of the future is only part of the possible story at best.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (1962)

I must admit that I was ignorant of Doris Lessing until only a few years ago when she was name dropped by Robert Fripp in an interview for Mojo Magazine. In the interview he recalled how one night on tour in the US with King Crimson he brushed off a waiting groupie after the gig and instead went back to his hotel room to read his Doris Lessing novel! He didn’t mention which one, but I wonder if it was The Golden Notebook? (no doubt it was one of her science fiction novels...). My ignorance about Lessing is reasonably shameful because she is a significant writer and a cultural figure of some renown. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007 and was listed in fifth place on The Times list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Lessing was also outspoken about feminism, culture and politics and was for a time in the 1950s a member of the British Communist Party, which resulted in her being spied on by the MI5 for twenty years. She even collaborated with composer Philip Glass, writing lyrics for two operas based on her work.

The Golden Notebook is one of Lessing’s most recognized novels and as I was soon to discover also one of her most challenging. The principle protagonist is Anna Wulf, a writer suffering from writers block and also a particular kind of mental anguish that comes with living in the 1950s; confused gender roles, the cold war, nuclear weapons and a stifling conservatism that is already beginning to crumble. The narrative is highly structured; divided into sections according to notebooks - black, red, yellow and blue, finishing with the golden notebook that unites them all. At regular intervals there are sections ironically titled ‘Free Women’ (or “ironical” - a word that Wulf uses incessantly throughout the novel), which feature Wulf, her friend Molly, their children and a host of male characters, most of whom are reprehensible. Like Lessing herself in the 1950s, Wulf is a member of the Communist Party and the red notebook reveals a deep disillusionment with the Soviet Union as the revelations about Stalin’s reign become too hard to ignore. The black notebook explores Wulf’s writing life, with all its inherent frustrations. Wulf is psychologically unable to accept her life as a writer and resents its bittersweet rewards and suffocating writers block. The yellow notebook records her emotional life and the blue her every day life. Both are fraught with the pressures of life and reveal a woman very much on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a theme that Lessing notes in her preface from 1971 as being more significant than the political and feminist themes.

Within the notebook sections there is further experimentation with form, with Wulf creating fiction that explores what is actually happening in her life. There are significant motifs that are repeated throughout: Wulf endlessly wants to leave the Communist Party and she is constantly drawn to married men, or they are drawn to her. Lessing explores changing gender roles in post war Britain, in which female identity is in flux. The irony inherent in the Free Women sections is that whilst the female characters live independently of men, they continually define themselves by their relationships with them. The male characters are generally dissatisfied and are prone to misogynist behavior that is unfortunately all too believable. Some hard ‘truths’ are explored throughout The Golden Notebook and Lessing is rightly admired for having been so bold in both her themes and her execution. However the novel is also flawed, containing a great deal of stilted dialogue. Many of the scenes are designed to put ideas across and then to repeatedly hammer them home. At times the novel is turgid, filled with endless character ruminations about their own situation or the plight of society as a whole. Also it doesn’t help there is absolutely no humour in the novel whatsoever. A mere one hundred pages into the novel it occurred to me that it was the most neurotic writing I’d ever read and Wulf was the most neurotic character I’d ever encountered. The narrative is painfully self aware and is intensely psychological in an uncomfortably way; it just never lets up and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It took me two hundred pages to finally become absorbed by the narrative. The middle third, although unrelentingly demanding, was almost enjoyable, yet by the last third I once again felt like I was wading through narrative quicksand.

This uncompromising book is certainly a challenge, but is it a challenge that is worthwhile? To answer that question requires writing endless pages of rumination in several notebooks, followed by periods of angst and the obsessive cutting out of articles from newspapers to stick onto the walls. Actually, whoops, that’s the book! Curiously, however, reading The Golden Notebook was a rewarding experience, although exactly why is hard to pin down. The novel is certainly significant culturally both for its impact on the feminist movement and its brave experiments with form; but the novel has dated significantly, being very much a product of its times and in that context it can perhaps be viewed as an anthropological document of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life against the backdrop of history.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Book Club Decade

This month is the ten year anniversary of the book club at Subiaco Public Library. When the book club was first started there was an immediate response from the public and we had seventeen people at the first session. Ten years later people from that first session are still coming along every sixth week to talk about our latest book and literature in general. Many other members are still coming along after seven or eight years. As facilitator this is of course very pleasing, but it also indicates that for a certain kind of person belonging to a book club is a very rewarding experience.

What is it about book clubs that is so appealing? The principle benefit of joining a book club is that it forces you out of your reading comfort zone. If you are willing to be dedicated and make the effort to read every book, rather than taking the easy way out and merely reading those with immediate appeal, then the benefits are manifold. A disciplined attitude towards reading assists getting through difficult or challenging narratives that might otherwise be abandoned. Reading with a purpose also means reading with a different perspective. You will learn a great deal and also the ability to critically assess texts is gradually developed; a skill that enables a deeper and more rewarding reading experience.

Facilitating the book club for ten years has meant that I’ve read about ninety books that I know I never would have considered reading otherwise. Some I wished I hadn’t read, but most have been of value and a certain amount have been brilliant. At the moment I’m reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook  (1962) and I have to say that it is proving to be a difficult experience. It took me two hundred pages to finally become immersed in the book and I know that once I finish it I’ll be relieved, however I’m also being exposed to a particular world view and a writing style that I otherwise would have not experienced.

If you’ve ever considered joining a book club, or starting one of your own, then don’t hesitate. If you are willing to be dedicated and select mostly challenging literature then it will enrich your life enormously. Also if you are a single middle aged or older man looking to meet someone then join a book club. Book clubs seem to be the domain of middle aged and older women. With only about five percent of members over the ten years having been male, it’s an indication that it is a potential dating trend that for now remains mostly untapped.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Seven Eves - Neal Stephenson (2015)

Part 3

It was with some relief that I went back to reading Seven Eves after enduring nineteenth century Italian decay and decadence as portrayed in The Leopard. Set five thousand years after the events in parts one and two, the decedents of the survivors of humanity’s dash into near Earth orbit now number in the billions and have established a ring of habitats around the still recovering Earth. What Stephenson offers here is a compelling portrayal of humanity reborn; a humanity capable of manipulating the environment like never before, but typically still displaying all the flaws of the ‘old Earth’ humans five thousand years ago.

Whilst the first two parts of Seven Eves were rooted firmly in near future hard science fiction, the third part is more speculative and it is very entertaining indeed. Stephenson describes a near earth orbital habitat ring that is every science fiction junky’s ultimate fantasy. Also impressive is the fascinating history of the five thousand year exile from the earth, which is gradually revealed throughout the third part. The surface of the earth is now habitable once again and efforts are underway to terraform it with organisms created in the laboratory using DNA data saved on thumb drives by the survivors of old earth. Stephenson makes it all seem perfectly feasible and takes great pains to explain the science behind the amazing hardware and bio-tech on display. Basically once again he can not contain his inner geek and floods the narrative with detail about how everything works and why, however this tendency works better for him when his imagination is allowed to escape the confines of near future technology.

As with the first two parts the characters are well rounded enough to not detract from the plot arc. As with most epics there are a plethora of characters, most being descendants from those who survived in space after the ‘hard rain’. Stephenson goes into great detail explaining the genetic diversity behind each of the main seven races of humans, but fortunately it’s fascinating stuff. Kath Two, a Moiran, is in ‘survey’ and is prone to being epigenetic: able to change her body under the influence of new environments. Beled Tomov is a Teklan, a muscle-bound hero type, and so it goes. Special mention must be made of Longobard, a ‘Neoander’ - that’s right, you guessed it, the future human race went and brought back Neanderthals.

Although the speculative science fiction of the third part is impressive, I found the end game of the novel to be slightly disappointing, however the overall impact of the novel, which is epic in every sense of the word, makes up for this slight flaw. In many ways the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, or even a series of books. The cynic in me feels that this is certainly likely, but that will not stop me from reading it if it does eventually eventuate.

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....