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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant (2009)

Sacred Hearts is historical fiction set in a convent in Ferrara in sixteenth century Italy. Medieval political intrigue melds with the rigors of convent living as the narrative follows the struggles of a rebellious fifteen-year-old novice called Serafina and the egregious demands this places on the Abbess and the apothecary, Zuana, whom is also the most engaging character. Read for the library book club whilst under the influence of various viral invasions (yes, they were medieval on my ass, so to speak), this novel did not sit well with me. Dunant’s prose style is merely adequate, bordering on dull.  Although the historical aspects were reasonably interesting, it was not enough to sustain my attention and provide a counterbalance against the moribund narrative pace, the endless whispered prayers, the smoothing down of habits and acts of god caused by termites. I’ll remember Sacred Hearts as book club fodder and although it has its appeal for some readers I struggled, which forces my hand into giving the novel a mediocre rating.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Weary Narrative

Like a good book life can be complex and demanding and sometimes it can be very wearing indeed. It's been a winter's end blighted by disease and after five weeks with various illnesses I find myself slowed down to a crawl with something akin to post viral fatigue; so I've decided to par back my life in order to rest and that includes sitting in front of a computer screen in excess of what I already have to do at work. I've decided that at least till the end of the year I'm going to write one paragraph about each book I read, to both help me recuperate and to refresh my attitude. Hopefully it will be a great paragraph though!

My malaise has also led me to the decision that once I start writing more I'm going to focus on fiction rather than the blog, for a while at least. Unlike Mr Charles Bukowski (above) after he quit working at the post office, I don't have that much time to write, so once I start to feel better I'm going to concentrate on some short stories that have been percolating for while. Now, time to rest...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl (1976)

Frederik Pohl is a science fiction great who published work between 1937 and 2011 before he passed away in 2013. Pohl won multiple awards, including the Nebula Award for Man Plus. He followed that up with a Hugo and a Nebula in 1977 for Gateway. Man Plus features a brilliant premise in which a human, Roger Torraway, is biologically engineered to live on Mars unaided by a suit or breathing equipment. Such a premise enabled Pohl to explore the outer limits of technology and the future of space travel. Although we are no where near developing cyborgs, humanity is beginning to take significant steps in space and there is a real sense of urgency, with the Mars One project and the likes of Steven Hawking warning that humans must become a multi-planet species in order to avoid extinction.

Although Pohl is clever enough not to be specific, Man Plus is set in what appears to be an early twenty first century future. Things are typically going badly for humanity, although forays into space have become common enough for there to have been a number of manned missions to Mars. Tensions are high between the Earth’s most powerful countries - America and China, and natural resources have become scarce. Computer modeling indicates that the extinction of humanity is probable and this spurs America to develop the Man Plus program that will enable humans to live on Mars. After the death of the first “monster” Roger Torraway becomes the cyborg savior of humanity (now there’s a headline I’d love to see...).

Ostensibly Man Plus is about the colonization of Mars, but perhaps the most significant theme is humanity’s relationship with technology. Cyborgs are a common science fiction trope, but Pohl’s treatment is uniquely visceral. Torraway is an everyman astronaut whose fallible humanity makes his transformation into a monstrous cyborg profoundly affecting. The horror of what the surgeons do to his body is palpable because Pohl succeeds in making a fairly improbable near future biotechnology believable. Torraway effectively becomes a Martian demon with superhuman strength and augmented senses. The sequences in which he is testing his new found senses are almost psychedelic in nature; it would have thoroughly entertained all those mid seventies acid-heads.

The great strength of Man Plus is the portrayal of a man who no longer recognizes himself as human, yet is still governed by human psychology. There is a brilliant sequence in which Torraway, desperate to see his wife, escapes the desert complex he’s sequestered in and appears in the bedroom of his home. The interaction between Dorrie and Torraway perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the ‘uncanny valley’ not that long after the concept was invented. Pohl also manipulates the reader into both enjoying the spectacle of Torraway as cyborg monster and engaging emotionally with the tragedy of his lost humanity.

Pohl’s writing style is now perhaps a touch old fashioned and the fact that the story is told in hindsight means that some narrative tension is sacrificed. To Pohl’s credit the hard science of travelling and surviving on Mars in Man Plus is believable. When the expedition finally makes it to Mars what transpires is exciting and intriguing. As with many of the great science fiction novels there is a twist. Perhaps I’ve read a few too many as I guessed what was happening about two thirds of the way through, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in the end. There is a 1994 sequel called Mar’s Plus for those curious as to what happened next; isn’t that the essence of science fiction, the question of what happens next? Although improbable in some aspects, Man Plus captures the sense of what it must be like to be on the cutting edge of what is scientifically possible; something that the participants of the Mars One project must be familiar with. They may not be about to be transformed into cyborg Martian freaks, but if they succeed it will transform humanity in ways that perhaps we have yet to imagine.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Complete Short Stories - J.G.Ballard (2001)

As a teenager in the 1980’s J.G. Ballard was a name that had been dropped by some musicians I admired, such as Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Dutifully I went out and bought Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). I was ill prepared for Ballard’s psycho sexual narrative about a character with an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. I haven’t read it again since, but it has certainly stayed with me. Ballard is a unique writer who is not easily pigeonholed into a specific genre; some of his short stories can by recognized as science fiction, but the majority are distinctively his own voice. This is the definitive collection, with 96 stories across 1184 pages and like Crash, most of them are now nestled in my subconscious, destined to emerge and take flight like the sand-rays that populate Vermillion Sands.

The stories set in Vermillion Sands, a surreal coastal desert-scape dotted with settlements, are perhaps Ballard’s most impressive short stories. Ballard wrote the Vermillion Sands stories between 1956 and 1970. This collection opens with one of his first published stories, Prima Belladonna (1956), which is set in Vermillion Sands. The Vermillion Sands stories are populated by listless, often psychologically intense protagonists who encounter other characters that are eccentric, or are involved in surreal and intense situations. These stories contain some of Ballard’s best imagistic prose. Vermillion Sands itself is a desert dream-scape; an environment of the subconscious that compliments the intense psychology of many of the adventurers, drifters and artists staying there. The desert of Vermillion Sands features sonic sculptures, rocks that grow and emit sounds when influenced by people or the environment around them. They feature heavily in Venus Smiles (1957) and The Singing Statues (1962), but appear in most of the other Vermillion Sands stories. Perhaps my favourite of these stories is Cry Hope, Cry Fury (1966), which features typically psychologically fraught characters creating paintings that are made with photosensitive paint that interprets an image of the sitter over many days. As with all the Vermillion Sand stories, the blend of weird technology and intense psychology is spellbinding.

In Ballard’s brief one page introduction he states that “Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject.” He goes on to say that “...there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Such a statement is, of course, debatable, but a great percentage of these collected stories are either perfect, near perfect or at least satisfyingly thought provoking. It is fascinating to witness Ballard’s development across thirty six years of short story writing. There is an evolution of style and ideas across the decades, but perhaps what is most interesting is what they have in common. The complexity of the human psyche held a strong fascination for Ballard. Many of the stories have significant psychological themes, such as My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974), in which the protagonist, Melville, is obsessed with digging up wrecked WWII planes from coastal sand dunes and flying to Wake island in the Pacific, which is a near impossible journey. The story is a representation of a mental state, rather than having a plot with a traditional narrative arc, which is the case with many of these short stories. Minus One (1963) is particularly brilliant; set in Green Hill Asylum, the asylum’s director decides to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of an escaped inmate by concluding that he didn’t actually exist and that he was the result of a mass delusion by the asylum staff. The ultimate problem this creates results in a darkly humorous and disturbing ending.

The environment, both natural and built, and how it can influence humans psychologically features strongly in Ballard’s work. I’ve been reliably informed by a work colleague that the correct term for this is psycho-geography. The coastal desert-scape of the Vermillion Sands stories certainly fits that description. Ballard’s infamous experimental story, The Terminal Beach (1964) best represents this theme. A man called Traven lives on an island entirely given over to the machinery of war and nuclear testing; an island that is “...synthetic, a man made artifact...” The synthetic island that Traven lives on is a manifestation of the post war human psyche. It makes for disturbing reading and its effect on the reader is almost subliminal. The psycho-geography theme is taken even further in the 1976 story, The Ultimate City, which is set in a future where fossil fuels have run out and most people live in self sustaining rural settlements. Ballard’s protagonist, Halloway, ends up back in a deserted city much like New York and gets caught up in a quest to bring back a portion of the city to how it was before everything changed. It gradually becomes apparent that the transition in Halloway’s psyche is a direct result of the built environment, shifting the story from a post apocalyptic adventure into a dark satire on the subtle terrors of modern life.

Ultimately this collection is a tribute to the brilliant sensibility of J.G. Ballard, which has been appropriately labelled ‘Ballardian.’ Ballard’s almost genre-less stories are a world unto themselves and throb with a singular luminous intensity that is wholly satisfying. Ballard’s style is literary, experimental, erudite and at times darkly satirical. The scope of Ballard’s writing is overwhelming, however many of these stories can be found in smaller collections, which might be a good place to start for the Ballardian novice. The Vermillion Sands stories have been collected in an eponymously titled publication that was first released in 1971, but has been republished many times since. The Vermillion Sands stories are addictive and to paraphrase the late William Burroughs, they give you a literary high; read them and I can guarantee that you’ll be ready to move on to this collection.

Image: An analogue to Vermillion Sands and the singing sculptures? The Pinnacles, just north of Perth.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent (2013)

The axe and block used to behead Agnes Magnúsdóttir

I’ll get straight to the point: Hannah Kent has written the best debut novel I have ever read. Burial Rites is a superlative piece of historical fiction that was inspired by a year long stay as an exchange student in northern Iceland when Kent was just 17 in 2002. While she was out with her host family she asked about the significance of a valley they were driving through and they pointed out a cluster of three hills and told her about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Nearly ten years later Kent chose the story of Agnes as the subject for the novel she would write for her PHD.

Burial Rites is an intensely emotional and psychological document of an obscure event in the history of Iceland that displays Kent’s ability to write complex and nuanced characters. Agnes, a morally ambiguous and complex character is central to Burial Rites, however all of the other characters are also brilliantly realised, giving the novel great depth. After her trial Agnes is removed from a makeshift prison and is taken to the home of the Jonsson family to wait out her last days. The Jonsson family are torn between duty to state bureaucracy, in the form of the pompous and stern Blondal, and their fear of the murderess in their midst. Charged as the savoir of her soul, the youthful priest Toti is at first tested by Agnes’ request that he help her through her last days, but is then dedicated to her beyond the call of his religious duty. The relationship between Toti and Agnes allows the story of Agnes’ life to be revealed at a natural pace, making it a brilliantly subtle narrative device to generate tension. The Jonsson daughters, Steina and Lauga, are divided in  their reactions to Agnes’ presence. Their mother, Margret, is initially distrustful, yet the presence of Agnes ends up bringing out the best in her. There is a particularly poignant scene in which the two women share a late night hot milk whilst Agnes tells of the events that led her to her fate. Agnes and Margaret are powerfully complex female characters that are so real and vital that you feel like you’ve shared many months with them in their badstofa, the Icelandic communal living and sleeping space used during that era.

The fact that Kent had lived in the area for a year and had then conducted six weeks of research to uncover the available records concerning the murders Agnes was involved in no doubt significantly helped her write such a quality novel. Letters and documents from the era feature throughout the novel, giving a harsh bureaucratic contrast to the tragic events and their aftermath. Such details give Burial Rites some historical credence, but it is the brilliance of Kent’s prose that really stands out. Kent’s prose style is beautifully poised and pared back; there’s nothing excessive and nor is there anything wasted. The bleak landscape of Iceland is unavoidable, yet not once does Kent overdo it with florid adjectives; nor does she waste the metaphorical power of the Icelandic environment. Her descriptive powers are such that the reader is right there with the characters, trudging through the alien landscape and huddling in the badstofa on freezing cold nights. Kent also generates compelling narrative tension by contrasting her third person omniscient narrative with sections in Agnes’ profoundly authentic first person voice.

Ultimately Burial Rites acts as an affirmation of the worth of historical fiction. Historians have been known to be suspicious of historical fiction, worried that authors distort facts and invent persons or situations that never occurred, giving readers a false impression of important historical events. Historians do have a valid point and I’m sure that some historical fiction does lead to inaccurate assumptions about the past; however a novel like Burial Rites brings alive the past, allowing readers to experience what it might have been like to be alive in an otherwise unknowable past. Kent has done us a great service, as it is unlikely that most people outside of Iceland would have ever known about Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Read Burial Rites and you will know exactly what it would be like to live through your last hours knowing that your head was going to be removed by an axe on top of a lonely Icelandic hill in the depths of a nineteenth century winter. The last chapter of Burial Rites is one of the most chilling and emotionally intense endings to a novel I have ever read and it will stay with me for a long time to come.

Endnote: Recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been harsh in my assessments of some of the books I’ve read recently, having given amazing books my second highest rating of excellent. After reading Burial Rites I find that I was correct in my judgements. Burial Rites deserves the sublime rating. It is the best literary historical fiction novel I have ever read, and that includes Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (2009).

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan (1996)

Carl Sagan was one of a select group of scientists who could successfully communicate complex scientific notions to laypersons. Sagan was an important cosmologist and astrophysicist, but it is his popular science books and documentary television series Cosmos (1980) that will be remembered by the general population. The Demon Haunted World was his last published work before his untimely death in 1996. I remember that my reaction to his death was one of sadness and but also of appreciation. Sagan achieved a great deal while he was alive and in doing so influenced me greatly in my outlook on life and my understanding of the universe.

In the preface to The Demon Haunted World, entitled ‘My teachers’, Sagan talks about how much his parents taught and encouraged him even though they were laypeople with no knowledge of science. They supported his dream to be an astronomer and inspired him with their down to earth skepticism and sense of wonder. Sagan did a similar thing for me when I watched Cosmos at the impressionable age of ten. Cosmos inspired me and nurtured my fascination with astronomy and the world around me, something that, like Sagan, was supported by my parents. In the latter chapters of The Demon Haunted World Sagan talks about the importance of not only education, but of having books in the home; something that is essential to providing that ‘candle in the dark’, keeping spurious pseudo-science and superstition at bay. As a librarian I greatly appreciate Sagan’s stance. As a society we must never lose sight of the importance of providing egalitarian access to books and information, in particular for the young.

Throughout the main body of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s debunking of pseudoscience is eloquent and, for the most part, compelling. Many of the initial chapters concentrate on UFOs and alien abduction; in particular the typical UFO stories and the so called face of Mars. The publication of The Demon Haunted World coincided with the era of The X-Files and a plethora of pre-millennial conspiracy theories. Once again there is a personal connection here for me, having been a UFO and alien obsessive during my childhood in the 1970‘s. Spurred on by UFO and alien books and classic 1970’s movies such as E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001 A Space Odyssey, like Mulder I wanted to believe. I even had my own strong memory of seeing a large white cigar shaped UFO hovering over my neighbor’s backyard that I’m sure was real, but would have just been a dream (I dreamt about UFO’s constantly). Curiously one of the scientific explanations for alien visitations and abductions that Sagan puts forward is sleep paralysis, something I experienced during my teenage years, although I didn’t see aliens (what I did see is another story).

The Demon Haunted World is a fascinating read, but can also be a sobering one. Sagan’s passionate argument for a better educated population is profound  and important. Sagan reminds us that it is essential to know something of logic and science (amongst other subjects) in order to make sound decisions. Unfortunately the statistics Sagan quotes regarding knowledge, beliefs and education in his home country of America is truly appalling. Only 9% of Americans accept that humans evolved; half of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun in a year and 63 % of American adults think that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. These statistics are from the 1990’s; would they have improved in the last twenty years or so? Unfortunately I doubt it.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s argument against blind belief and pseudo-science is more important than ever. When it comes to the pressing issue of climate change humanity is at the crossroads and climate change deniers around the world, including the Abbott led conservative government here in Australia (perhaps the worst offenders of all), could benefit from reading this book. Science is under attack more than ever by non-scientists with dubious agendas and flawed belief systems who portray science and scientists as untrustworthy. The great irony, as Sagan shows, is that scientists go to extreme lengths to make sure that their findings are as accurate as they can possibly be and therefore, by extension, their conclusions too. When it comes to climate change it seems that we still do live in a demon haunted world. 

Finally, perhaps the best thing about reading The Demon Haunted World was discovering that Sagan and I shared a very similar outlook toward science. Sagan states early on that: “In its encounter with nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.” Science and a sense of wonder, even a sense of mysticism, are not mutually exclusive. Science is not merely cold reductionism, but provides a deep understanding of the magnificence of the cosmos and therefore of human existence itself.

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.