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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Torch - Peter Twohig (2015)

Peter Twohig’s book The Cartographer (2012) hit the right note with book buyers and became a run-away popular fiction success. Set in the year 1959 in Richmond, a working class suburb of Melbourne, it featured an eleven year old boy who took shelter in the drains and lanes of the city to escape the man responsible for a murder he accidentally witnessed. The Torch begins shortly after the end of The Cartographer and the child protagonist is one year older and is, you guessed it, up to shenanigans in the drains and lanes of Richmond, this time seeking the kid known as Flame Boy before he, gasp, strikes again.

The Torch begins well enough, with the un-named protagonist (he refers to himself variously as The Spirit of Progress, The Railwayman, The Ferret and is called the Blayney Kid by most of the adults) having to move with his mother to his grandfather’s house due to their home having been burnt down by, you guessed it, Flame Boy. Unfortunately it’s not long before the flaws of this novel become all too apparent. There are a multitude of characters, literally hundreds; most are incidental and many are caricatures of what is supposed to be your typical Australian of 1960. As the book progresses there just seems to be no end to them, causing the principal characters to get lost in the general commotion. The Blayney Kid’s narration is chock full of Australian colloquialisms that are initially endearing, but soon become so irritating that the inward groaning starts to become audible. The attempt at giving the Blayney Kid some psychological depth with his angst over his twin brother’s death and his nascent romantic adventures fall flat. All the fires, car crashes and marauding criminals could have had more impact if the narrative had more tension, instead the same tone persists throughout. The rather flimsy plot, of which I do not wish to go into because, frankly, it’s just not worth it, is stretched out like an old rubbery elastic-band across the novel’s 457 pages. In the end, despite some faint hope, nothing truly significant is revealed and you look at your watch and think, my god I’m still alive (I’ll be putting in these blatant Bowie references for some time to come).

The Torch was selected by my library book club members, perhaps due to the success of The Cartographer, but at the meetings many were underwhelmed and disappointed and seemed to be enjoying their coffees much more than the book they had to trawl through. Perhaps if this shaggy dog tale had been more rigorously edited and had lost about half of its length it could’ve been a contender. The Torch came close to becoming only the second book on this blog to be rated as ‘reprehensible’, but it was saved by the fact that The Finkler Question was just so awful that other books have to try really hard to be its equal.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn (1903)

A copy of this intriguing book was given to me as a secret santa present about four years ago (by my oldest brother I strongly suspect). It had been on my mind for a while so I decided to finally read it. I’m glad I did because this charmingly idiosyncratic book was a source of great fascination and entertainment. Written by Greek born Lafcadio Hearn during the last years of his life living in Japan, Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese supernatural folk tales, many of which are centuries old. Hearn traveled to Japan in 1890 to work as a newspaper correspondent but soon abandoned journalism for teaching, which eventually led to teaching english literature at the Tokyo Imperial University. Along the way he married and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Unfortunately he died at the relatively young age of 53 from a heart attack. I wonder if he haunted anyone?

The collection opens with one of its best stories, The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi. This story was somehow familiar to me, although that didn’t stop it from being creepy. Set seven hundred years in Japan’s past it recalls the tale of a blind monk called Hoichi, whom was proficient with the biwa instrument, and his encounter with the ghosts of the Heike clan who had perished in a famous battle. Hoiche is tricked into playing the biwa for the ghosts deep in the forest at night and has to be saved by his masters who come up with a workable but flawed plan. Like many of the stories in the collection the narrative style is sparse yet evocative; the scenes described come to life with an unnerving clarity. Many of the stories are no more than a few pages long, such as Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a simple tale of a Samuri who cleverly tricks the man he is about to execute so he will not return as a ghost to take his revenge. Reading stories like these made me realize just how steeped Japanese culture is in ghost stories and other bizarre supernatural phenomena. It is no wonder they make such disturbing horror movies such as Ringu (1998). In fact four of these stories were made into a critically acclaimed film called Kwaidan in 1964.

Perhaps the best story here is Rokuro-Kubi. A Samuri named Isogai Heidazaemon travels through an isolated mountainous area. Deciding to settle down to sleep for the night a woodcutter happens upon him and warns him that he’s in a dangerous area and offers him shelter for the night. Little does the Samuri know that he’s being tricked and the woodcutter is a Rokuro-Kubi, a being whose head detaches from its body to rampage through the night. The Rokuro-Kubi heads plan to eat him while he sleeps, but Isogai has other ideas. This story is disturbing but at the same time reminded me of the giant slapstick heads in the classic Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away (2001). No doubt there are many references to centuries old supernatural tales in many of the brilliant Studio Ghibli films.

It’s a pity that this collection did not end with Horai, a story about a place where the atmosphere is made up of ghosts and the people never grow old (where did the ghosts come from then?). Instead Hearn ends by including some of his own studies of butterflies, mosquitoes and ants and their cultural significance in Japan. These pieces are moderately interesting but after the ghostly atmospheres of the preceding stories my interest began to wane and the book ended on a low note. Despite this flaw Kwaidan’s supernatural charms were enough to make this collection memorable and it has reignited my interest in Japanese literature. Many years ago my brother lent me a number of books by Japanese authors, many of which I enjoyed immensely. Lately I’ve bought a few books by Yukio Mishema, which coincidentally was one of David Bowie’s favourite authors. I’ll have to read them sooner rather than later, along with Murakami’s last novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013). Maybe on a long flight to Japan? Who knows....

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Death of David Bowie

It’s strange, even though in the last couple of days I was thinking about Bowie’s mortality, I never thought that it would happen, as absurd as that sounds. I was thinking, “Well I hope he lives at least another decade, just think what else he could do.” He’s always been there for me, an inspiration, a connection with the strange and the brilliant; he shone like no other and most of all he was my friend. Bowie really was the all round entertainer - he had something for everyone and for every mood and every situation. In times of trouble you could whack that certain Bowie album on and it would help get you through. As someone once said, he was bullshit and totally genuine at the same time; he had artifice but he also had a deep soul and could articulate something universal that we could all connect with.

I loved everything about Bowie, his music, of course, but also his intellect, his artistry, his poise and grace; his darkness and his melodrama and pretense. He had it all and even his artistic failures were fascinating. He went out on the edge and sometimes he would fail, but that was ok, he could always charm his way out. It’s hard to fathom that I’ll never see another up to date picture of Bowie, to be able to wonder what he is up to and what amazing moves he could pull next. He really was a genius and I’ll love him forever. Thanks David, thanks for all the times I listened to one of your records and was transformed, thanks for all the gigs and for just being you. You gave it your all. Goodbye.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My Back Pages

Looking back on 2015 it was quite a varied year in terms of reading, although I would liked to have read much more, if only time would allow it. However there were plenty of highlights during the year. Late in 2014 I met one of my musical heroes in the form of Steve Kilbey from the Australian band The Church. In January I read his excellent autobiography, Something Quite Peculiar (2014) and then met him again with the rest of the band in July when they toured the west coast (they were brilliant by the way...). When literature and music meet I’m a very happy man indeed.

My book club reads this year yielded both pain and pleasure, with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) taking the crown for the best book I’ve read this year. The Secret History was compelling, absorbing, manipulative and most of all just brilliantly written. Other book club related highlights include Ian McEwan’s succinct and stylish The Children Act (2014), Richard Flannagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and Joan London’s The Golden Age (2014), which managed to both charm and move me in equal measure. Book club pain came in the form of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), which was not mediocre by any means, just long winded and intensely and neurotically self-conscious. It was also a fascinating and challenging read, so in the end I’m grateful to have read it and I will certainly remember it for a long time to come.

If The Secret History was the best book of the year (in fact one of the best I’ve ever read...), then the biggest disappointment was Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977). Perhaps Chatwin had great adventures in Patagonia, but he managed to make it totally boring on paper. Luckily there were plenty of other highlights from my own (non book club) reading to make up for the tedium of Chatwin. Miranda July weirded me out in a good way with her debut novel, The First Bad Man (2015) and Michel Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976) was simply a great piece of experimental cult fiction. Other highlights were Axiomatic (1995) by Greg Egan and Seven Eves (2015) by Neal Stephenson, both of which left me wanting to read much more of their work.

As for next year I aim to finish the thousand plus pages of Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2006). I’m reading it a bit at a time, mostly late at night, so hopefully I’ll get through it! What I really have my eye on though is my first love - science fiction. After reading Egan, Stephenson and then recently Huxley, it’s time to catch up with contemporary science fiction and some of the classics that I’ve never got around to reading. Maybe I’ll even read Philip K. Dick’s crackpot The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011) this year - now there’s some holiday reading....

Monday, 28 December 2015

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (1932)

Earlier in the year I was thinking about re-reading novels that I had first read in high school; the novels that were perhaps wasted on the young and naive. Brave New World was one of those books I read in year eleven when I was more interested in slacking off than absorbing important literature. Since those days I’ve read a number of Huxley’s books: Point Counter Point (1928) and some of his droll satires such as Chrome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923). Looking back I realize that I avoided re-reading Brave New World because of its classic status; it seemed just too obvious to read when there is so much unknown literature to explore. Now that I’ve rectified this oversight I’ve found that Brave New World justifies its place with the established canon of important literature.

Brave New World is so thematically rich and layered that it could power whole university literature departments. Set sometime in the twenty sixth century, Huxley’s future society features such science fiction chestnuts as genetic engineering, a rigid genetically based caste system, lab grown humans, subliminal conditioning and of course, permissive drug use in the form of soma. Of course this future Utopian society is not all it seems and Alpha class worker Bernard Marx is suffering from various inadequacies due to possible flaws in his development and conditioning. Thanks to his job at ‘Hatcheries and Conditioning’ he is able to travel and stay at a so called savage reservation, where he meets the son of a woman who was thought lost in the wilderness by Bernard’s manager during a past visit. John, the savage, and his mother, who has now slipped into an otherwise avoidable middle age, travels back with Bernard to the brave new world of modern humanity only to find, for all involved, disappointment and tragedy.

A colleague at work, the coordinator of the museum attached to the library, spied me reading Brave New World and informed me that she had recently read both Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). She then asked me to read both and tell her who got it right in terms of predicting the modern world. I am intending to read 1984 again, but probably not for a while. Coincidentally however, whilst looking at the Wikipedia’s Brave New World entry, I discovered a section discussing the differences and similarities between the two novels. In 2015 it is easy to see elements of 1984 throughout many societies, but Huxley’s visions are perhaps less obvious, but they are there. Orwell postulated a society in which books were mostly banned, Huxley thought they could become irrelevant (here Huxley is perhaps more on the money); Orwell foresaw deprivation of information and propaganda, Huxley postulated that we would lose the truth within a media of superficiality; Orwell foresaw control and captivity, whilst Huxley foresaw the irony of freedom without meaning. Thinking about it I came to the conclusion that both Orwell and Huxley were ‘right’ about the future, as far as any writer of futurist narratives can expected to be. One cannot consider the prevalence of CCTV throughout most cities and the online surveillance undertaken by authorities without thinking of Orwell. In turn one cannot help but think of Brave New World when considering the prevalence of escapist drug culture and most pertinently the alarming decline of serious journalism coupled with humanity’s addiction to mostly mindless entertainment.

With Brave New World Huxley originally aimed to write something that was a parody of H.G.Wells, but instead the work developed into a serious rumination on both Huxley’s own time and what the future could hold. No novel that is set in the future should be overly criticized for not getting it right, as it is all just speculation; however Brave New World contains themes that have strong contemporary relevance. One of the inspirations behind Brave New World was a book written by Henry Ford called My Life and Work that Huxley happened upon during one of his visits to the USA. Ford’s thoughts about capitalism and mechanization partly inspired Huxley’s future society in which humans are merely another product that economic rationalization could be applied to. As capitalism influences democracy and society in more intrusive ways how close are we to humans becoming something that can be owned by a corporation? Could a company grow humans and therefore own them? Could companies claim ownership over parts of human bodies? Far fetched perhaps? The recent supreme court battles over the ownership of a particular gene associated with breast cancer could well be merely the beginning of a brave new world that could be very chilling indeed.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Golden Age - Joan London (2014)

Joan London is a Perth born writer of some renown, although not as highly regarded as Tim Winton, perhaps in part due to London’s sporadic output since the nineteen eighties. The Golden Age is only London’s third novel and first since the well received The Good Parents in 2008. Although London has not amassed a great body of work she has more than made up for it by the quality of her novels. This was recently recognized when she won the Patrick White Award for 2015, an award set up by White in 1973 with his Nobel Prize in Literature money to help draw attention to otherwise unrecognized Australian writers. According to Wikipedia White wanted the award to be announced just a week after the annual Melbourne Cup horse race in an attempt to draw attention to literature rather than sport! A great curmudgeonly tactic there Patrick.

The Golden Age is set in the mid nineteen fifties during the polio epidemic that would eventually infect some 40,000 Australians. The novel takes its name from a hotel that was converted into a hospice situated in the inner city Perth suburb of Leederville. Here we meet teenager Frank Gold, a Hungarian WWII refugee with an interest in poetry and pretty fellow teenager Isa. Their relationship and the hospice itself are the focal point around which a series of vignettes unfold that reveal the inner workings of a young society trying to cope with the tragedy of polio and the aftermath of WWII. The parents who come to visit the children interact in ways that reveal their class anxieties, a concept the children find alienating after the great leveler of polio has given them a common connection. The relationship between the children and the nurses brings a warmth and depth to the narrative that is palpable. The most significant minor character is Sister Olive Penny; an example of a post-war woman living independently of men and marriage.

London’s prose style is deceptively simple. Within what seems to be merely a teenage love story lurks great depths. All it takes is a quiet turn of phrase to open up the psychological world of a character. Frank Gold’s musings, romantic yearnings and earnest attempts at poetry all conspire to engage the reader. At times I had strong emotional reactions to what I was reading that seemed to come from nowhere. Cleverly, without you really noticing, in just over two hundred short pages London reveals the inner workings of 1950s Perth family life and society as a whole. The Perth of the past is evoked beautifully, with the summer heat, old buildings and beach settings.

The end of novel is set far into the characters futures and is both satisfyingly realistic and profoundly effecting. The way London deals with the characters’ emotional lives is remarkably nuanced and touching. Also the brevity of the end section provides just enough to satisfy the desire generated in the novel’s main body to know just how the future will pan out for the principal protagonists. On the evidence of this novel London is certainly a top class writer in the league of Tim Winton and has written one of the definitive novels set in the isolated wild west of Perth. London missed out on winning the Miles Franklin Award for The Golden Age, but I’m sure it will not matter as a novel this good will definitely find an audience.

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.