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Saturday, 12 July 2014

All the Birds, Singing - Evie Wyld (2013)

The day after I finished Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing it was announced that the novel had won the coveted Miles Franklin Award. I had been reading the novel for the library book club and I wondered what the members would make of both the book and the fact that it had won the prize. I must admit that the novel left me cold. It also made me, once again, ponder the nature of awards and how judges decide that a particular novel deserves to win; just how much of the decision making is based on objective criteria and how much is subjective opinion?

All the Birds, Singing
is a dark tale that explores trauma and its aftermath. Protagonist Jake Whyte (no, not Jack White) is a young woman who is basically just trying to survive. All the Birds, Singing tells Jake’s tale of woe via alternate chapters, with one stream set on an island off the coast of the United Kingdom that moves forward in time and the other set in Western Australia that moves backwards in time, ultimately taking the reader back to the source of Jake’s trauma. This fragmented structure allows Wyld to build tension by drip-feeding information about Jake and her past. In the chapters set on the island Jake runs a sheep farm and some of her sheep are being mysteriously killed by something or someone lurking in the surrounding woods. The palpable sense of horror generated by the mystery of the sheep killings has psychological parallels in the chapters set in Australia, with the mystery of the traumatic horrors of Jake’s past.

Unfortunately Wyld’s ability to generate genuine suspense is undermined by Jake’s one dimensional presence throughout the narrative. This is, ironically, due to Wyld's use of fragmented structure, which keeps Jake trapped in her traumatized funk for most of the novel. After a while this state of suspension become an irritant. The fact that I did not warm to Jake at all meant that I found it difficult to connect with the novel and when I did it was only for fleeting periods. When discussing All the Birds, Singing with my fellow book club members I discovered that I’d entirely missed various subtexts lurking in the plot. I just wasn’t motivated enough to notice. Also I realised that despite The Luminaries (2013) being over 800 pages long I had not once thought to myself ‘when is this going to end?’ I found myself doing this many times whilst reading All the Birds, Singing, despite the fact that it is at least a third smaller.

Half of the thirty book club members hated the novel and the other half enjoyed it, but thought that it was an average example of literary fiction; I was somewhere in-between. Despite many being disappointed with the ending, which to some was open-ended and overly ambiguous, I felt that it was poignant and pointed towards redemption for both Jake and the mysterious Lloyd, a sympathetic character who had turned up on her farm with his own murky past to deal with. So the novel is not without its merits, but should it have won the Miles Franklin award, beating the likes of Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan and Alexis Wright? Perhaps it was the fusion of form and theme that appealed to the judges, or the portrayal of a female character who was both strong and damaged. When it comes to assessing the short listed novels how much objectivity comes into play? How subjective are the judges allowed to be? That’s something I’d love to know. If I were a judge I would have concluded that All the Birds, Singing was not good enough in both objective and subjective terms to win the award. Sorry Evie, I know you would have worked hard on All the Birds, Singing, but in the end all I can say is that it just wasn’t for me.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

501 Must Read Books - Emma Beare [editor] (2007)

When you love books there is perhaps nothing better than a book about books, which is just about as meta as you can get. I’ve been reading a number of different books lately that are taking some time to get through because they are either massive tomes, or are time consuming non-fiction. 501 Must Read Books is one I’ve been dipping in and out of lately and not only is it a beautiful book to hold and behold, it is also a superb guide to all things bibliographic.

Most book enthusiasts would have at least seen 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006). Well 501 Must Read Books is far superior; for a start it has a better title. I’ve always found the 1001 title concept to be very off putting, cliched and slightly condescending. The former book comprises almost entirely of fiction arranged chronologically both in sections according to era and then by the year the books were published. There are some impressive novels amongst them, but the selections are mostly predictable with a smattering of obscurities to pique the interest of bibliophiles. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is by no means a worthless guide to fiction, but 501 Must Read Books has so much more going for it in terms of layout and book selection.

501 Must Read Books arranges the books by genre, including children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers and travel writing. Throughout these sections there are well written reviews that contain biographical information about the author, the book’s cultural context and impact and detail about the book’s literary significance. There are brilliant photographs throughout and plentiful reproductions of original cover art. Each book featured also has an extra list of the author’s other significant works, which is very handy.

Whilst 501 Must Read Books contains acknowledged greats such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), there are many obscure treasures (to me at least), which is what you really want and expect from a book like this. On the same page as Herzog there is the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker, all published in 1991. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road explore homosexuality in WWI Britain and involves Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. A few pages before that there is Russian author Isaak Babel’s Tales of Odessa, published in 1916. Tales of Odessa is a series of joined novellas exploring life in Jewish ghettos. The review mentions that Babel is one of the greatest short story writers of all time, which is news to me. One of the great things about 501 Must Read Books is that it features many non English novels, such as Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1966) and West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).

A good test of this book for me is the science fiction section, which is a genre I know a great deal about. There are some notable absences, such as any of Iain M. Banks novels, in fact there are no Iain Banks novels in the modern literature section either - what were they thinking? Despite this the selection of science fiction novels is a fine one, with well known works such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) making an appearance.  However it is the less well known I’m impressed with, such as Curt Siodmak’s Donvan’s Brain (1942) and Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), both of which are new to me and sound excellent. This section is also a great reminder of novels I’ve been meaning to read, such as the great Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962). 

Overall there’s much to recommend about 501 Must Read Books. It is in many ways a quality alternative to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Its series of genre sections is its great strength, providing a great guide for those who would like to move away from just reading novels. The memoir and travel writing sections are enticing for me for these very reasons. When there is a guide book about which are the best book guide books, 501 Must Read Books will definitely feature, in fact maybe that’s a section it could add for its own future editions, how meta would that be!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Rachel Papers - Martin Amis (1973)

It was about time, I decided, that I paid some attention to the work of Martin Amis. After all he’s a significant figure in literature; named one the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, son of the late Kingsley Amis, friend of the late Christopher Hitchens and writer of lauded novels and non-fiction. Just as well I’d bought The Rachel Papers a few years ago when I was spending money on novels in an irresponsible fashion. In any case, it’s always good to be prepared, and fortunately Amis did not let me down.

The Rachel Papers
happens to be Martin Amis’s first novel and features the first person musings of nineteen year old protagonist Charles Highway. Charles is a perfect summation of what it is like to to nineteen: gross, arrogant and horny, very horny. Charles is on the verge of possibly entering Oxford to study literature. He’s also the writer of copious narcissistic tracts about his life, which includes the Rachel papers. This never ending document details just how Charles will win Rachel over and therefore have his way with an older woman (although Rachel is barely older than Charles) before he turns twenty and leaves behind his teenage years forever. Charles is an easy character to warm to due to his witty and engaging observations of, amongst other subjects, the British class system. Also The Rachel Papers has a narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend, which is very entertaining indeed.

The Rachel Papers reveals a late teenage mind that is obsessed with not only girls, but also gross bodily functions. There is a great deal of detail about various bodily fluids, including descriptions of of what he hacks out of his bronchial lungs and his battles with massive pimples. Although there is plenty of juvenile humour to be had throughout the novel, The Rachel Papers is much more than it initially seems. The novel presents three significant relationship stages: the youthful and lustful first flush of love in the the form of Charles and Rachel, the problematic middle stages in the form of Highway’s sister - Jennifer and her husband - the proudly lower class Norman, and finally there is the passionless endgame of Highway’s parents. The nature of these relationships provides a clever subtext beneath the grotesque that results in a life lesson for Charles Highway which, in the end, cuts through his adolescent anger at his father and his own indulgent narcissistic tendencies.

There are also some literary themes at play, with Highway constantly referencing literary greats such as William Blake and innumerable British poets. It is no coincidence that Highway is attempting to gain entry into Oxford, as it provides Amis with an opportunity to satirize the British education system. Highway is also endlessly taking notes and working on his epically bitter ‘Letter to my Father’ which ironically, it seems to me, is a letter to his future self. It’s tempting to see Amis and his father within this strained relationship. Amis has admitted that Charles is partly based on his youthful self. There’s certainly a cutting self awareness to the narrative, as well as being absolutely hilarious and unashamedly male. Amis also manages to pull off the best sex scene I’ve ever read, which is unflinching in its realism without being cringe-worthy. The novel ends with some of the coldest closing lines I’ve ever read, the kind that only a very brave writer could produce.

Upon finishing The Rachel Papers I began to miss it like an old friend who I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. As a result I’m now a total fan of Martin Amis and I intend to read the rest of his bibliography in order of publication. Amis has been a controversial writer over the years, one who’s raised the ire of many conservative commentators in Great Britain. Over the years his friend Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Amis, something I’m willing to take on now that Hitchens is dead. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek of course, however it is apparent that The Rachel Papers is an easy target for accusations of misogyny. In its defense I have to say that the novel is not necessarily misogynistic in nature; it is much more accurate to view it in anthropological terms. Amis shows that there is a certain confidence in a young man’s stride, but unfortunately there is also an unresolvable duality at the heart of the male psyche that perhaps few woman (and men) will ever come to terms with.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton (2013)

By now most avid readers would know at least something about Eleanor Catton’s mammoth Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries. Catton is the youngest writer to ever win the award and at 830 pages it is also the longest winning novel. The Luminaries is set in the 1860’s on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand during that era’s gold rushes. It is a complex novel, with a large ensemble of characters coupled with an innovative structure. These attributes may put many potential readers off, but rest assured The Luminaries is well worth reading.

The Luminaries
is such a long and complex novel that it is futile to try and describe its plot and structure in any great detail. Perhaps uniquely the novel manages to be both backward looking and innovative at the same time. Catton writes in the Victorian narrative style used by many authors at the time in which the novel is set; however the novel’s structure is a modern contrivance built around the signs of the zodiac and the movements of the planets. Twelve of the characters are associated with the zodiac and are assigned to the Stellar section of the character chart at the beginning of the novel. Another eight are in the Planetary section and are given related influences such as reason, desire and force. The first chapter, entitled ‘A sphere within a Sphere,’ is as long as an average book (360 pages) and like the cycle of the moon, each successive chapter wanes until the final group of chapters are only a few pages long. Fortunately due to the novel’s other quality attributes the reader can get by without paying much attention to its convoluted form, which is something that I mostly chose to do.

One of The Luminaries great strengths is Catton’s ability to write believable characters that live and breath on the page. When coupled with the mysteries at the novel’s core, it makes for strangely compelling reading. I say strangely compelling because at one point it occurred to me that despite the novel’s slow moving narrative, fragmentation and complexity, I found myself completely drawn into the world inhabited by the characters and the mysteries they were grappling with. This is masterful story-telling coupled with beautiful writing and it is no wonder the judges of the Man Booker awarded the prize to The Luminaries.

Considering the amount of research and planning that must have gone into writing the novel, winning the Man Booker Prize is a just reward for Catton. It is, however, a novel that requires intense focus on the part of the reader. Fragmented across time and told from multiple perspectives over a complex narrative structure, it demands a certain level of commitment. After I finished The Luminaries I wondered what the average reader would make of its conventions and pretensions? My book club members, for example, mostly appreciated the novel, even if they didn’t all necessarily enjoy it. As serendipity would have it at the same time a work college referred me to an essay called The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real), written by Will Self, in which he discusses the decline of not just what he calls the paper oriented ‘Gutenberg mind,’ (as opposed to the digital mind - my words, not his) but also of the novel as a living medium (it’s a zombie art form, moribund since Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake (1939) according to Self) and in particular the ‘difficult novel.’ Self puts forward that the novel as an important medium is in terminal decline and serious literature will become the domain of the minority, both in terms of authors and readers. Is a novel such as The Luminaries a way forward, or merely the last gasp of a zombie art form with declining readership? Do people want to read novels like The Luminaries any more, or is it just going to be vampire romance and about a million shades of grey?

Such questions once again bring to bear the worth of prizes such as the Man Booker. No doubt there has been huge sales of The Luminaries since it won the coveted prize, but just how many of them would have been read all the way through? Is the Man Booker making things worse by rewarding a difficult novel that may be unpalatable to most readers? Or will it inspire people to reach beyond their comfort zone and help keep alive one of the most important cultural artifacts humans have ever devised? Personally I thoroughly enjoyed The Luminaries and am confident that the so called difficult novel has a bright future beyond this era of wizards, vampires and all those shades of grey. I believe that there will always be enough people intent on exploring the limits of literature and be willing to go beyond their comfort zones. As the demands on our time is taken up by more and more frivolous digital pursuits I believe that serious literature will come to be appreciated much more readily as an antidote to cultural superficiality. Self may be pessimistic about the future of the novel, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a spent cultural force just yet. If you are one of those people who put aside The Luminaries after a few hundred pages then prove Will Self wrong by picking it up again; you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Ghostopolis - Doug Tennapel (2010)

One of the advantages of working in a library is being able access a whole range of media I’d not normally encounter on an every day basis. When I saw Ghostopolis handed back at the returns counter I was immediately attracted to the cover artwork and the concept. I grew up in the 1970‘s reading comics; buying them for 0.10c each at the local second-hand book store across the road from Boans department store in Bunbury (now those were the days). It was time, I thought, to channel the past and read something different.

The premise of Ghostopolis is simple: ghosts are real and Frank Gallows, as a suitably disheveled anti-hero, is employed by the Supernatural Immigration Task Force to track down wayward ghosts and send them back to the afterworld. Due to unfortunate circumstances involving a wayward nightmare horse skeleton Gallows sends teenager Garth Hales into the afterlife, namely Ghostopolis. Ghostopolis is ruled by a suitably evil character named Vaugner, and is populated by mummies, skeletons (ruled by the noble Bone king), will o wisps, specters, zombies, boogymen and goblins. Ghostopolis is a brilliantly rendered freaky supernatural world. The artwork is superb, the colours and shadings are beautiful; a fine example is the eerie gloaming of a werewolf’s tea house. That’s right, a werewolf’s tea house; owned by a creaky old werewolf obsessed with tea who freaks out when Gallows dares to say that he’s “More of a coffee guy.” 

Aside from the brilliant artwork, it is the characters that help make Ghostopolis an above average graphic novel. The tea obsessed werewolf is only part of the fun. Vaugner’s bug-eyed insect army are simply fantastic, in particular his top hat wearing enforcer who is bent on eating Garth and his nightmare horse. Gallows makes for a convincing hapless hero who has to imagine that he has an imagination in order to unleash his earthly powers in Ghostopolis. Just to complicate matters he’s also in love with a ghost, the beautiful Claire, who is a strong character in her own right. However it is Garth Hales who really makes Ghostopolis something special. He’s not just a typical teenager, but a complex character who has to cope with some serious issues; not just how to deal with freaky insect enforcers flying around in bee-copters.

Ghostopolis has such a strong narrative flow that by the time you get to the climax, in which the eerily slender Vaugner engages in an apocalyptic battle with Garth, you are totally hooked. Ghostopolis is a great blend of action, snappy dialogue and emotional pathos. Despite the blockbuster climax and the cast of freaky supernatural characters the ending of Ghostopolis is very human, which is a real strength. I’d love to see a sequel be published, but in the meantime apparently Hugh Jackman owns the rights for a movie version and if Tennapel has anything to do with its production then it will be brilliant.

Friday, 25 April 2014

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo - Nik Cohn (1967)

Nik Cohn is a British music journalist and author of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (1970), which is considered to be one is the first serious works of rock journalism and is also included in David Bowie’s list of his hundred favourite books. I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo is Cohn’s first published work and is the fantastic story of street urchin Johnny Angelo’s seduction by early rock ‘n’ roll. The novella is a wild fast paced allegory about the cultural impact of rock ‘n’ roll and in many ways perfectly captures the primal energy of rock music.

In the beginning Johnny Angelo is a typical unloved youth and from the age of four indulges in escapist behavior, initially by dressing up in a red suit and parading back and forth, like a showman, on top of a wall. The adults are outraged, of course, and so begins his flight from the grimy reality of post-war Britain. By the age of six Johnny is a petty thief, stealing watches from the markets, and before the age of ten he meets a mysterious William Burroughs type character called the Doctor (no, not that Doctor). The Doctor becomes a mentor, spinning fantastic stories whilst grinning through yellow teeth. The Doctor also possesses a honeypot of crystals that ‘makes flowers blossom’ in his brain. Like much of the symbolism throughout the novella, the Doctor and his honeypot of crystals is partly self evident and partly nebulous.

Their unlikely friendship comes across as a changing of the generational guard and it is significant that the Doctor remarks to Johnny ‘Doesn’t truth get tiresome? When lies are so much fun.’ Such advice gives credence to the notion that this novella did indeed influence David Bowie, who only five years later would invent himself as a rock star in the form of alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. The novella is a rock ‘n’ roll fantasia, complete with bikes revving endlessly in the streets, the flowering of youthful rebellion, hero worship and street-wise fashion. Significantly by the age of fifteen Johnny both leaves home and hears and sees through a scopitone Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti. His mind is suitably blown. 

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo manages to both capture the impact of early rock ‘n’ roll and to also predict its future. Johnny’s fuck you attitude, his gang of bikers and his posing finds Johnny rooted in the early rock ‘n’ roll moment, but his violently riotous live shows complete with wild animals (a metaphor for the energy of rock ‘n’ roll?) and freaky circus performers point toward the future of glam rock theatre and the nihilism of punk only nine years later. There’s an interview with Johnny that comes across like the infamous interviews Lou Reed gave in the 1970’s, full of casual deadpan distain. Johnny lives for the moment, the moment of danger and release that is the rock ’n’ roll concert. This is both his making, and true to rock ‘n’ roll mythos, his undoing as well.

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo also tells the story of the establishment’s knee jerk reaction to rock ‘n’ roll and how that contributed to the fatalistic hubris of rock stardom. Hounded by the establishment and holed up with his followers, Johnny’s endgame is one of futility and egotism. With amazing prescience Johnny’s story ends at the age of 27; that mythic and tragic age that would later claim Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and then Kurt Cobain decades later. My copy of the novella was published in 1970, tempting me to think that perhaps Cohn tinkered with Johnny’s age for the reissue, because by the end of that year Hendrix, Joplin and Jones were all dead. Either way I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo is a recommended read for anyone interested in the rock ‘n’roll mythos and the evolution of rock writing in general. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers (2013)

I have to admit that I find it hard to keep up with contemporary fiction. There are just too many quality older books out there waiting to be read. Dave Eggers, despite enjoying both critical and some commercial success, has until now completely passed me by. It has made me wonder whether this is a failing; is it important to read contemporary books, or is it fine to see if they endure and become an older book that you must read because its worth has been proven? Sometimes a novel’s importance and power can only be judged in hindsight from a future vantage point. Could The Circle become one of those books that future generations will venerate? Or will it succumb to its flaws and just become another novel tied to its historical context and fade away?

The Circle is the name of a technology corporation that is modeled on Facebook, Google and Silicon Valley. In fact in the novel The Circle has subsumed these companies and has become the biggest corporation of its type in the world. Eggers uses The Circle as a means to explore the possible dangers of when technology, power and prevailing cultural attitudes intersect in a way that can lead to the subversion of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and privacy. In some ways The Circle is a descendent of cyber-punk, with a corporation flexing more power than the government, set within a technologically dystopian context.

The Circle’s protagonist, Mae Holland, is a ‘typical’ twenty something who is extremely happy that she has left behind her humdrum job at a dead-end company when she is headhunted by her college friend Annie, who is both one of the ‘gang of 40’ in The Circle and close to the ‘three wise men’ who run the corporation with the kind of self-righteous glee displayed by those who think they know best. Mae readily goes along with all of the company’s demands and dubious plans for the future. On her first day at work she is gifted Circle technology and is asked to hand over her laptop. Mae hesitates, but not because she is worried about other people accessing her private information, but because she merely wants time to say goodbye. It is an obvious device, as it is only the first of many things that Mae will say goodbye to, not least her perspective and humanity.

Although she has a few bad experiences along the way Mae remains both idealistic and gullible, readily agreeing with everything The Circle suggests; which pushes the envelope of credibility when it comes to realistic character development. It is possible that Eggers has sacrificed credibility for the sake of thematic power. Unfortunately in this regard The Circle is excessively heavy-handed. As the novel progresses The Circle’s blatant disregard for basic human rights becomes increasingly outrageous as they progress from TruYou, a one stop cyber-portal, to SeeChange micro cameras that allow widespread surveillance, to the concept of total transparency and slogans such as “privacy is theft.” The descent into dystopia is unfettered and rapid, perhaps self-consciously attempting to outdo the likes of Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Thematic heavy-handedness is not the only way The Circle is flawed. The prose borders on the banal and character development is limited by the demands of the plot. Mae’s psychological state, as she reacts to The Circle’s demands, is often revealed in detail, however she is an unsympathetic character and has a superficial personality. The same can be said for Annie, whose personality seems subsumed by technology and the demands of the job. In contrast Mae’s parents are the novel’s most grounded characters, trying to cope with illness, unfair health insurance and then finally their daughter’s skewed perception. Such a contrast is no doubt a deliberate device used to highlight The Circle’s dehumanizing technology and its effect on younger generations. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, the artistic Mercer, is an obvious personification of those who inherently distrust the internet and big data. Eggers gives Mercer some hipster credibility, but ultimately he just comes across as a hollow mouthpiece for all that’s believed to be wrong about big data. If his character had been given a more rounded presence, then his endgame in the novel would have packed a bigger punch. Even so Eggers does manage to create some nervy chills from Mercer’s fate, but it is too little too late to improve on the lack of narrative tension that hampers most of the novel. 

There is an alternate way to view The Circle; one in which Eggers has deliberately written a novel that appeals to teenagers and twenty somethings. In particular those from that demographic who wouldn’t normally read a novel. Perhaps Eggers has commercially tailored The Circle to reach the widest possible audience because ultimately the themes he explores are real and important. In 1985 George Orwell’s 1984 was part of my year eleven curriculum and it impacted on me greatly. Less than three years later I walked through the city centre of Perth and saw the first CCTV cameras that were supposedly installed for the sake of public safety, and I couldn’t understand why people were not outraged by their presence. So perhaps The Circle is destined for better things? In the future it may be regarded as a key text and its flaws will be overlooked because the themes are so important. Perhaps now or in the future people will be inspired enough by The Circle’s dystopian themes to make a stand against big data’s erosion of privacy.

Note: The Circle gets an admirable rating, although it's not quite there, but nor is it mediocre - it's somewhere in-between, in my opinion anyway.