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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....

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.