Thursday 29 December 2011

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone is having a great time at the end of 2011. Thanks to all those who have read Excelsior since it was launched only four months ago. It has been great fun to do and there will be much more to come in 2012.

Meanwhile enjoy this tour of some of the world’s most inspiring bookstores. As it says, these stores will make you re-think your kindle, if you do indeed have one – I certainly don’t!

Have a great 2012 everyone!

Friday 23 December 2011

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy (2011)

During the chapter entitled – ‘Down the Hatch,’ Marieke Hardy asks where are all the female writers who write like Charles Bukowski? After reading You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead I have to conclude that Hardy herself is attempting to inspire a female Bukowski writers movement single handedly. Hardy has filled her memoir with frank admissions of living an unconventional and drunken life in the public eye and all the complications and adventures that come with it. Oh, and it’s also poignant, funny, insightful and clever - Bukowski would have been proud.

For those of you who have no idea who Marieke Hardy is, and there’d be at least some of you, think journalist, broadcaster, confessional blogger , child actor (see 1.46 minutes into this abomination), writer of screenplays  and a regular panel member of the ABC First Tuesday Book Club. Hardy is only in her mid 30’s, so why a memoir now? When I first heard about this book that’s exactly what I thought, in a rather cynical fashion I have to confess. Mind you the fact that she is a total literate babe and that I’m one of those viewers of First Tuesday Book Club who aren’t just in it for the panel’s viewpoints about their latest read – she looks great with a flower behind her ear and she knows it. I didn’t need much more enticement to give her book a go.

The title of this book is apt. Hardy herself and her writing style can irritate people, but ultimately her charm makes her easy to warm to. The book is entertaining in a guilty kind of way. It’s like a well-written car crash - you can’t look away and you kind of feel bad that you don’t. Hardy reveals details about her life that most people would keep as deep dark secrets. There’s the small matter of attending a swingers night out of curiosity. The ensuing tale is cringe-worthy and wildly entertaining and I’m glad she didn’t leave it out. Hardy also didn’t leave out her obsession with prostitutes, which influences her adventures with one particular boyfriend with bad-boy qualities.

Before you start to think that this book is just about drinking and weird sex, Hardy brings some balance to proceedings with a chapter about a close friend’s battle with cancer. There are also chapters about a Young Talent Time obsession and an examination of what it’s like to be a twenty something with a clique of friends, which is aptly titled ‘The Bubble’. There’s also a hilarious chapter devoted to Hardy’s Bob Ellis fandom and how they end up meeting. In some ways though, Ellis ends up upstaging Hardy. Throughout the memoir a nice touch comes in the form of a right of reply at the end of some chapters, offering a significant player in proceedings a chance to respond. What could be seen as an indulgence works well and brings balance to the outrageousness. However, Bob Ellis’s reply is even more outrageous than what had preceded it, and as if she knows this we hear nothing more from Hardy and the book ends with an afterward from one of her significant ex-boyfriends.

There is something fascinating going on here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is more than just another memoir. I believe that this book directly reflects the influence of online culture with Facebook, Live Journal and blogs that allow people to live their lives in the public eye without a thought to privacy. Revelations simply emerge online, into the light, blinking and wondering what all the fuss is about. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is partly a product of this culture, and it is in some way an extension of Marieke Hardy’s own blog that is sadly on a hiatus at the moment. A book of this sort may be beyond the pale for some people. Hardy has certainly left herself open to judgment from both male and female readers. Personally I think that she is a brave trailblazer, especially considering that Hardy often paints herself in an unflattering light.

They’ll be more memoirs written in this style by people other than rock stars (they are a natural at this game) and in the ensuing years there’ll be no avoiding them. Of course there are precedents, with Julian Cope’s memoir Head On (1994) being a great example of an individual letting it all hang out. Head On is perhaps the greatest book about the music industry ever published. But I digress, safe to say that this book represents a refreshing approach to the memoir and I admire Hardy for her audacity.

In that previously mentioned chapter, ‘Down the Hatch,’ a judgmental viewer sends Hardy a Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet and warms her to stop drinking to excess and that it’s obvious that she is out of control due to her demeanour on the First Tuesday Book Club. I’m going to suggest no such thing. Keep living your drunken and adventurous life Marieke, and above all continue to write about it. Marieke, you can be my female Bukowski anytime. 

And now for a female point of view from guest reviewer Elizabeth....

For fear of sounding like a sycophant, I must say Marieke Hardy’s first book affected me profoundly. Her prose is clear and honest, and she shares touching and laugh-out-loud funny stories of love, sex, boozing, loss and laughter. Hardy has guts. She shares her truth boldly and unpretentiously, seemingly unafraid to expose her fantasies and insecurities. This is a book that shines due to its sheer ‘humanness’ – she’s delightfully imperfect and the reader can relate to her self-doubt and laugh along with her self-deprecating humour. She cleverly draws the reader in with her conspiratorial style, which is like a wink and a whisper of “just between you and me…

It’s not Hardy’s style that affected me so deeply. Her book made me feel less alone in the world. I promise I won’t gush with snot-smeared gratitude like an addict in a self-help meeting, but I felt a rare feeling after finishing it. It felt like it was written for me (and all those who love libraries and long afternoons of intoxication). Most popular offerings for women entreat us to swoon helplessly under the power of dashing vampires or yet another contemporary version of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy. With all the popular ‘chick lit’ written these days, there’s little written about the interior life of the modern woman that explores beyond our romantic yearnings.

I loved this book, as Hardy had the courage to write about herself – her past, her hopes, ideas and preferences. The focus of the book is not her romantic relationships, though they are discussed. In the first chapter, she shares her adventures with prostitutes and three-ways – hardly conventional romance! It was refreshing to read her portrayal of female desire, which I’m pleased to report, displayed a complete absence of swooning!

Hardy asks questions I have asked myself – where are the female Bukowskis? Why won’t I pick up my clothes and put them away? How do I behave around children when I don’t have a maternal bone in my body? To me, having been a precocious ‘weird girl’ who’s grown up to enjoy all of life’s pleasures, Marieke’s bold admissions encouraged me to not only accept myself, but to revel in my tendency to be a lush and fabulous individual.

I literally squealed with glee while reading, as Marieke lived my 1980’s Aussie childhood dream – appearing in The Henderson Kids as a child star, and going on to act in, and eventually write, Neighbours. She was even clumsily kissed by one of the Young Talent Time kids! In terms of Australian popular culture, there’s plenty to enjoy in this book.

The stories Hardy shares are no less than hilarious. A word of warning – this is not a book to read on the train. Unless you don’t mind subjecting other passengers to your unladylike snorts of laughter as you read about the day writer, Bob Ellis met his canine namesake.

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is most definitely worth the read – for the humour, the honesty, the humanness. These are the adventures of a woman unafraid of adventure, doing what many of us have dreamed but wouldn’t dare attempt.
Perhaps best of all, Hardy reminds us there are stories in all of us worth sharing - if we honor truth, beauty and love. Although she slums the depths at times, this is a memoir and a woman with real class.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Crow Books (Victoria Park, Perth)

When you visit Crow Books you are immediately struck by its great layout, with its beautiful wooden shelves, ornamental rugs, funky posters and stylish leather couch. The ambience is just right, and so it should be as it is owned and managed by the same guy who set up and managed Planet Books. About a year and a half ago he left Planet and created the only independent bookstore in the Victoria Park/eastern suburbs area of Perth. Crow Books sits in the hub of the Victoria Park shopping precinct (900 Albany Hwy to be precise), an area filled with restaurants, cafes, curio shops and stores selling colourful gourmet stuff in fancy jars.

As soon as I entered the shop and found the fiction section I immediately spied a dozen books I could have easily given a good home. I ended up buying three books, but it could have easily been more. This is a shop where you will find the books you have always wanted to read and unknown books that will entice you with their weird allure. Of course there is something for everyone – a cult section, poetry (with some beautiful special editions), art, new releases, lowbrow, classics, music, philosophy, cooking and pretty much any subject your overwhelmed brain can think of.

Crow Books has extremely friendly opening hours, retailing seven days a week from mid morning till 9 -10pm or so (check the website for specific days), which is great going for a relatively small independent bookstore. They encourage extended browsing to a hip soundtrack (they were playing TV On The Radio while I was there). Crow Books would be great fun to visit at night after a meal at a nearby restaurant, which is just the right time to revel in the atmosphere of rows of books and weird animal posters containing strange aphorisms. Oh, and there’s a somewhat macabre crow overseeing proceedings as well.

Why not visit and a support a bookstore that’s pulling all the right moves? Crow Books will prosper because it understands what book lovers want and they are willing to give it to them at a decent price. They'll also give you a 10% discount if you have a RTR FM subscribers card – don’t leave home without it.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

A Man of Parts – David Lodge (2011)

A Man of Parts is a biographical novel. A much maligned blend of fact and fictional possibility that historians have generally criticized for leaving readers with a false idea of history. Fair enough, but if you start reading with an understanding that it’s not meant to be a reliable historical text then I believe that all should be fine. Lodge has undertaken a huge amount of research for A Man of Parts, consulting works written by H.G.Wells himself, including Experiment in Autobiography (1934), correspondence and also biographies of the principle characters and scholarly essays. This gives the reader some confidence in the case of H.G.Wells and his life-long appetite for the joys and resultant dysfunctions of ‘free love.’ Oh yes, and his writing.

Before reading this book I knew nothing about the life of H.G.Wells and I still haven’t read any of his novels. I guess I’m like many people who know of Wells because of his enduring impact on western culture via his early influential science fiction novels The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds. (1898). The 1960 movie adaptation of The Time Machine is one of those classic Sunday afternoon films of childhood that I watched on more than one occasion. I was also exposed to Wells via the million seller concept album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978) Narrated by Richard Burton, it was disturbing stuff for a nine year old in the relatively innocent days of the late 70’s.

So, what of Wells and his sexual/romantic escapades? You’ll need some endurance, something like Wells had, in order to read this 559-page depiction of Wells’s life. Once you get through his early life then it’s onto the serious stuff of his adherence to the notions of ‘free love’. Sex before marriage, multiple partners and open relationships, all of which flew in the hypertensive face of Victorian and Edwardian morals. Wells’s amorous adventures may upset some readers though, but personally I believe it is a mistake to judge the past, in this case anyway, from the vantage point of more than a century into the future. Wells’s gift for scientific prediction is also, in some ways, reflected in his prescient private life. Wells and his lifestyle would have been right at home in modern permissive western society.

There is, of course, the small matter of Wells’s literary career. In-between relationships with the likes of Rebecca West and Edith Nesbit’s daughter, Rosamund Bland, and literally dozens of other women, you do get insights into his thinking and the many prescient ideas that ended up in his books. He had a prolific career, with more than 100 books published in his lifetime - with essays, science fiction, social realism, a best selling short history of the world (and you thought that Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything was an original idea?) and nearly everything in-between. A Man of Parts is, however, balanced in favour of his predilection for what he referred to as “recreation.” The amount of young woman that treated him like a literary rock star and threw themselves at his well-shod feet certainly helped his cause.

Heady stuff you would think, but the problem with A Man of Parts is that it has a tendency to become tedious. The narrative thrust lies in what Wells did next, who he was sleeping with, where he traveled to and how he dealt with the many problems associated with his radical lifestyle. There are also his dealings with the Fabian Society, through which he attempted to actualize his socialist ideals. These sections suffer from a distinct lack of colour. The letters scattered throughout the text become almost unbearable to read due to the era’s prose style being unbelievably florid. There is some experimentation at hand with Lodge having Wells looking inward and questioning himself with one voice and answering with another, as if he is interviewing himself. Although clumsy at first I eventually warmed to this technique and it helped that it was not overused, mainly appearing in the first section and towards the end. Lastly, Lodge’s writing style borders on the banal, although somehow he gets away with it. Perhaps he wanted the story of H.G.Wells life to speak for itself.

A Man of Parts polarized my book club members – a few detested it, whilst the others were either under-whelmed or enjoyed it but with reservations. I fall into the latter category. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book and it hasn’t made me want to read other Lodge novels, although a few people I know who enjoy his writing have told me that this is not a good representation of his prose. What it has done is made me want to go back to the source and, as a science fiction fan, read the early works of H.G.Wells (I don’t think I’ll be reading his later work - The Bulpington of Blup though).

One endearing memory that will stay with me concerning this book is that during one of the book club sessions somehow all the men sat together on one side of the table and all the women gathered together on the other side, seemingly ready for a debate regarding Wells and his ‘legitimized’ philandering. As it turned out most of women did not judge him too harshly, preferring instead to talk about what an interesting man H.G.Wells was. I tend to agree and as Lodge defines at the onset of the novel, Wells was a man of parts: Def – 1. Personal abilities or talents. 2. Short for private parts.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Rating System and Labels/Tags

Despite initially deciding not to have any kind of rating system for the books I read and write about I’ve now completely changed my mind. I have realized that it is a useful way in which people can access a record of all books of a certain quality via the labels/tags at the end of each post. Although in the book clubs at Subiaco Library we rank each book out of ten, I wanted to move away from the scenario of curtly giving a book that an author may have worked on for years 3 out of 10 and then sending it on its way. I mostly try and refrain from being too harsh a critic. But hey, value judgments are usually made when you are dealing with any work of art. Most people usually have some idea about whether they like a book or not and compare and contrast it with others they’ve read. I’m no different really.

A label/tag is a good way to not make ratings too obvious but also allows readers a quick way to access the kind of books they may want to read or those they’d like to avoid. The rating system is as follows and is mostly self explanatory:


I do try to read what I think will be quality books, so there shouldn’t be too many reprehensible books. Although if I was writing this blog when I read The Finkler Question for the book club it certainly would have earned a reprehensible label/tag! Sorry Howard Jacobson, but your book was reprehensible (def: deserving censure or condemnation). Books that are given the sublime label/tag should also be in the minority. They really will need to be absolutely amazing to deserve the sublime label/tag. Remember that there is a certain level of subjectivity when it comes to passing judgment and you may totally disagree with me regarding the rating and what I say about a book. Be sure to let me know if you think I’m wrong.

I will also be labeling/tagging books by type or genre in order to allow easy access to particular kinds of books. There may be people who just want to know about the science fiction books I read, for example. Also look out for more unusual labels/tags – there will be some fun to be had. That’s also something else I’ve realized – labels/tags are fun.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Distant Star – Roberto Bolano (1996, 2004 English translation)

Novelist and poet Roberto Bolano died in 2003 at the age 50. Before his death he had became known as an important writer in the Spanish-speaking world. His two huge novels, The Savage Detectives (1998, 2007 English translation) and 2666 (2004) were particularly acclaimed. Since his death the majority of his works have been translated into English and he’s become the not so obscure cult literary name to drop. His last novel – 2666 was completed in a frenzy of writing before his death and emerged in English in 2008.

After reading The Savage Detectives because it was recommended to me by an acquaintance that worked at Planet Books I immediately bought 2666. No doubt I was partly lured by the beautiful edition split into three parts with large red typography and arcane artwork. I’m yet to read it, but it sits ominously on my bookshelf, creating tension amongst my other unread books. The Savage Detectives totally enthralled me and it sits at the centre of my blog’s main picture - literature staring back at you, daring you to take up the challenge.

Distant Star is one of many novellas Bolano wrote in Spain whilst in exile from Chile. Like many Chileans with something to lose he fled the country after a brief period of imprisonment in 1973 after Pinochet’s coup. After leading an itinerant life he finally settled in Spain and undertook numerous menial jobs whilst writing at night. Distant Star is linked with another work - History of Nazi Literature in Latin America (1996, English translation 2008). Bolano refers to it in a forward to Distant Star, stating that:

“In the final chapter of my novel…I recounted in less than twenty pages and perhaps too schematically, the story of Lieutenant Ramirez Hoffman of the Chilean air force, which I heard from fellow Chilean, Arturo B…He was not satisfied with my version.”

Humorously Bolano claimed that he and Arturo shut themselves up in his house and that during the writing of this extended version his role mainly consisted of “preparing refreshments” and “consulting a few books.” As good a clue as any that Arturo is based on Bolano himself. Although the narrator of Distant Star is not revealed I believe that it is Arturo (therefore Bolano) recounting how he and his fellow poets interacted with the enigmatic Alberto Ruiz Tagle. Tagle both attracts and repulses his fellow young poets and as the book moves on his story becomes macabre and sinister. Tagle disappears and later emerges as a pilot in the Chilean air force going under the name of Weider. The narrative recounts how he attempts to create the ‘New Chilean Poetry’ by writing poetry in the sky using an old German WWII fighter plane. He goes on to become famous throughout Chile due to his sky writing exploits.

This is a deceptive book with layers of meaning and humour so black that it seems to be forged from the dark matter that holds the galaxies together. The tales of Weider spin their web and become surreal and bleakly farcical in nature. However, the book has serious intentions, although they are not immediately obvious - the mark of a quality writer. The prose is subtly compelling and I found myself drawn into the narrator’s obsession with Weider. The last part of the book becomes like a detective narrative, with the narrator himself drawn into a manhunt for Weider. 

As the book drew to its conclusion I strongly felt that I was being lead towards a certain understanding or insight. I did eventually get there, although I’m not going to elaborate simply because I don’t want to give the game away. Distant Star is one of those books that you find yourself thinking about for days and weeks later - thoughts emerging uninvited to spark ideas and then finally understanding. This is the kind of rare book that I always look for, providing an interaction that goes far beyond actually finishing the book. The Savage Detectives also had this effect on me. I felt like I lived with its characters and it stayed with me for months after.

Bolano’s critical status may be a bit over the top, but reading Distant Star has reinforced the notion that he is a significant writer. If you attempt to read Bolano and falter, bear in mind that he is worth persevering with through the tangents, the obscure concepts and his obsession with poets and poetry. He has something important to say about humanity and what he has to say is open to interpretation without suffering from being too diffuse.

It’s also worth remembering that Bolano was predominately a poet, only turning to prose to provide a more secure future for his family. As he was slowly dying from a diseased liver he invested his remaining energy into longer works and he succeeded in creating a unique body of work. Invest some time yourself, buy his books and go out on a limb. You will not regret it.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Planet Books – Mt Lawley, Perth

Ok, so I’m going to romanticize bookstores. Well, why not? Soon the good old days of taking in the atmosphere of a quality bookstore could be over right? Online buying (mainly) has already driven chains such as Borders and Angus & Robertson into oblivion, or, ironically, to online sales only.

I’m optimistic that bookstores can survive, despite the onslaught of online stores and now E-Readers such as the Kindle. They need to be smart, they need to engage and mainly they need to be independent boutique shops that offer a bit more than just racks of books that you could get anywhere. They need to foster the experience of exploring and discovering books that you’ve never heard of. They need to stock obscure authors or exclusive editions to wet your appetite. Most of all humble book buyer, they need your support. Sure you can buy most books online cheaper than at your local bookstore and I don’t begrudge you that. But what if you bought every third book from a local bookstore? (yes, you should have one to nurture). What if you enjoyed the experience of cruising down to the shop and breathing in the refined air of all those books lined up just waiting for you to take them home? Also you’ll be helping the local economy rather than your money going to a faceless overseas company that has fewer overheads and the advantage of a vastly bigger market than your local store. Online retailers can sell books for lower prices and still make more money because of the huge volume of books they ship. Why not support a local store that pays local people to work there. Actually talking to people in the store, most often big readers them-selves, can point you in new and interesting reading directions. This is what happened to me at Planet Books and led me to discover Roberto Bolano.

Planet Books is a superb bookstore and is worth supporting because they do everything right. It’s simply browsing heaven and will soon have a coffee shop as well, so you can combine two loves if you are also into coffee. Browsing online sucks in comparison to cruising the wooden shelves and rug-lined floors of Planet Books. There’s great posters wallpapered to the walls, leather couches (try before you buy is definitely encouraged) and a great pyramid chandelier – it has class, atmosphere and most importantly thousands of books. Planet stock everything, and I mean everything, from the obscure just waiting to be discovered to the latest releases you know you want, all lined and piled up in bibliographic lusciousness.  It’s tactile, it’s funky, it’s tasteful, it’s an adventure and most importantly it makes you feel good. As a bonus if you subscribe to that other Mt Lawley institution RTRFM that lives just above Planet, then you’ll get 10% off everything just by flipping them your subscriber’s card. Those of you reading this overseas have a think about what great bookstores are in your area and do yourself a favour and go and have a browse.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Point Omega – Don DeLillo (2010)

Don DeLillo’s writing is endlessly rewarding. DeLillo’s novels are insightful, beautiful, complex and in some cases meditative. His prose is effortless and DeLillo is justifiably recognized as one of the great American writers of the last fifty years. I’ve not caught up with DeLillo for quite some time however. The last book I read was Great Jones Street (1973), one of his minor works, although still well worthwhile. I’ve also read Underworld (1997), which is regarded as his key work and one of the great novels of the 20th century. Ratner’s Star (1976), which is intense and bizarre; White Noise (1985), which is one of the defining post-modern novels, and The Names (1982), a minor classic that brings together linguistics and cults. It’s also my favourite DeLillo novel.

Point Omega follows on from a series of novellas released since the huge tome that is Underworld. Point Omega comes in at 115 pages and begins with an anonymous man obsessively focusing on an installation in an unknown museum (in New York?). The installation is a slowed down screening of Psycho - the original movie. Referred to as 24 Hour Psycho it, well, runs for 24 hours. This takes 15 pages or so, some of which is spent obsessively examining the spinning shower curtain rings after the shower curtain is ripped away in that famous murder scene. Then we cut to the desert to find Richard Elster, his daughter and a young filmmaker intent on making a documentary about Elster’s time working for the military in the aftermath of 9/11.

What’s this book about and why is it worth reading? Due to its brevity it’s hard to talk much about the content without giving too much away. The book is not really plot driven, although the narrative does move towards a defining event. Instead it stands as a meditation on the relationship between consciousness and time. Holed up in a decaying house in the desert, the characters are overwhelmed by the depth of time; they give into it and slow down to just basic existence, eating, sleeping and talking about ‘point omega’. You’ll have to read the book to find out what ‘point omega’ means, I’m not going to spoil it for you.

Sounds boring? Well, actually no. DeLillo’s prose draws you in and resonates in interesting ways. It’s subtle and doesn’t show off, simply because it doesn’t need to. Towards the end it’s what he doesn’t say that becomes important. I loved it but I also recognize that it isn’t for everyone. If you are after an action packed plot rich with tension and release then look elsewhere. There is no release to be found within the pages of Point Omega.

Monday 31 October 2011

The Divine Invasion – Philip K. Dick (1981)

The Divine Invasion is Philip K. Dick’s penultimate novel. It is also the second novel in a trilogy based on his 2-3-74 experiences and the concept of VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Having come back into Dick’s orbit once again, seeing the Radio Free Albemuth film and reading Sutin’s Divine Invasions (1989), I was ready for some more Dickian tomfoolery.

Dick’s body of work is inconsistent, but on the whole very good to brilliant. He really churned them out at times and on occasions it showed. Conversely Dick took some time writing The Divine Invasion, as revealed in Sutin’s book, however it is slightly disappointing in that it is unfocussed and too theologically heavy. Actually heavy is a good term to use as Dick really wrestled with his religious obsessions, many of them originating from the ontological insights and visions of 2-3-74. The book really strains under the weight of an incredible brain trying to frame its thoughts and experiences into a fairly typical Philip K. Dick narrative.

The Divine Invasion begins on Earth with Manny, a six year old boy and his guardian - Elias, talking about his deceased mother and the “zone of evil that lay over everything”. Manny was conceived on the colony planet of CY30-CY30B, a catchy name that’s for sure. Manny has memory problems and his father - Herb Asher, is in cryonic suspension due to an accident when they arrived on Earth. Herb is mentally stimulated to relive his life, giving him the impression that he’s still alive. In a typical Dick joke poor old Herb is driven to distraction within this cryonic dream-like state because the equipment used to keep him going is picking up transmissions from a nearby radio station that is constantly playing all string versions of Fiddler on the Roof. From here the tale of how and why they’ve all ended up on Earth is retold, giving the reader the impression that they are merely privy to Herb’s cryonic replay. Whether this is the case or not, typically, becomes unclear. Of course being a Philip K. Dick book I’m giving absolutely nothing away here.

Manny is divine in origin and Earth is under the rule of a religious and secular coalition of which Dick portrays as being evil, or at least inferior to the true god. Such concepts actually mirror some of his own experiences and beliefs. The occluded truths of his novels weren’t that far from how he actually viewed reality. Perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of this book, at least if you are familiar with Dick himself. His obsessions are made manifest here, including his infatuation with Linda Ronstadt in the form of singer Linda Fox, who, of course, is not what she seems.

The average reader may be perplexed or put off by the theological ruminations of the principle protagonists. There’s a great deal of dialogue in The Divine Invasion and much of it is about obscure theological notions. The novel really gets bogged down and doesn’t adequately recover. Despite this there is still much to enjoy here, including Herb Asher’s conversation with an air traffic cop (they get around in flying cars of course), in which he argues that he should be let go because the cop himself is not real, and he gets away with it.

The Divine Invasion is probably not the best place to start if you are a Philip K. Dick novice. To seasoned Dick readers it is fascinating, darkly funny and typically ultimately hard to fathom, which is what you want from a Philip K. Dick book really. It’s kind of sad, as Dick died only a few years after he wrote this and one year after it was published. I’m yet to read his last book - The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982), so I don’t know whether he ended on a high note. Had he lived I have no doubt that he would have kept writing, continuing his efforts to shape his religious experiences into great science fiction narratives.

Monday 24 October 2011

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx (1993)

In my experience award winning novels are often disappointing. Whilst Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009) was an exercise in brilliance, the novel that won it in 2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson) was unrelentingly awful. Others have been dubious or puzzling, books chosen as some ironic joke played on readers. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx’s second novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. Fortunately it is deserving of such a prize.

The Shipping News came into being after Proulx visited Newfoundland eight or nine times, eavesdropping on the locals in diners and bars and absorbing the ambience of the mostly harsh environs.  Apparently Proulx also fell asleep reading the Dictionary of Newfoundland English most nights for two years. The effort was worth it because The Shipping News is brilliantly written, full of rich adjectives that easily evoke images of strange people amongst a unique landscape. Despite Newfoundland’s obvious harsh weather, complete with a nine-month winter, the book actually tempted me to travel there to see it for myself.

The principle protagonist, Quoyle, is a pathetic anti-hero. Proulx makes it clear in the opening quote for the first chapter from The Ashley Book of Knots: “Quoyle – A coil of rope of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary”. This quote really does sum up the life of Quoyle that plays out in the opening sections of the book. The man with “ …the monstrous chin…” is unlucky in childhood, study, work and his love life. Petal, his wife, is perhaps the one character that flirts with caricature. She’s a real bitch, perhaps too much so, and Quoyle’s misery is extreme. Proulx really rams the point home. It’s a relief when she is dispensed with in memorable circumstances.

Once Proulx takes Quoyle to Newfoundland, his ancestral home, the novel settles into a slow arc leading to some kind of redemption for Quoyle. There’s the stoic figure of his aunt, his two daughters, a love interest and The Gammy Bird. As a relatively untalented journalist Quoyle ends up writing the shipping news at the Gammy Bird, an odd newspaper run by eccentric named individuals such as Tert Card, Nutbeem and Jack Buggit. All real names that Proulx dug up from Newfoundland phone directories and notice boards.

What kind of novel is The Shipping News? Indeed, what kind of novel wins the Pulitzer Prize? Well, it’s funny in an eccentric way. It’s realism but as narrated by someone whose worldview is eccentric - Proulx’s true voice or is it style? I can’t decide. The book is certainly not dramatic, although there are moments of drama. It’s not much of a romance, at least not in the traditional sense. Basically it’s a tale of personal redemption set amongst the mystery of the past and the hardship of the present.

There is much to admire, however I did find myself struggling to maintain an interest, particularly during the middle section of the book. It just didn’t engage me in the way that I enjoy. I think that this is more of a matter of taste rather than an inherent fault with the book itself. The novel is slow moving but many works of art that unfold slowly are extremely rewarding. Essentially The Shipping News is great literature, but just how much you enjoy it is down to a matter of taste.

Friday 14 October 2011

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick - Lawrence Sutin (1989)

For those of you who don’t know anything about Philip K. Dick then there are two things you need to know - he was a total freak but he was also a brilliant and unique writer of science fiction, perhaps because he was, well, a freak. I know this because I’ve read quite a few of his novels and short stories. After reading Divine Invasions – A Life of Philip K. Dick I’m more convinced than ever that he was one of a kind. I few months ago at the Revelation Film Festival I saw Radio Free Albemuth and it was a film worthy of Dick’s vision. I mentioned this to a fellow ‘Dickhead’ at work and he lent me this book. Divine Invasions is a fine summation of Dick’s work and I recommend it to anyone interested in this maverick’s life.

Philip K. Dick was born in 1928 in Chicago and later moved with his mother to Berkeley after his parents divorced. Dick would live in and around Berkeley for most of his life. Dick was born just at the right time to be involved in the great rise of science fiction in the pulp era of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Dick is rightly considered to be one of the most important science fiction writers to emerge from this era because his influence permeates both modern film and literature. Also, to a certain degree, modern life resembles his books (more on this later). Early on Dick churned out short stories on demand in an attempt to make a living from the pulp magazines. Although science fiction was popular during that era it certainly wasn’t seen as a legitimate form of literature and initially Dick yearned to escape its confines by writing mainstream literature. However, only one of these novels would be published in his lifetime - Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975), but fortunately for Dick he became recognized as one of the most talented science fiction writers around.

Dick wrote a large number of short stories throughout his career, many brilliant, most fascinating and some deserving of the moniker ‘pulp’. The most recent collection I read - The Father Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Stories (1987) had some of his greats, like The Golden Man and Null – O. These stories are brilliant distillations of Dick’s imagination and his disturbing world-view. He was also a prolific writer of novels, typing at mad speeds under the influence of legally prescribed amphetamines; he was hooked on them for well over a decade. During 1963 – 1964 alone Dick produced 11 science fiction novels, including two that I’ve read in recent years – Dr Bloodmoney (1965) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a perfect example of Dick’s obsessions – what is real, how can you tell you know what’s real and what is human? A question that would later be fully explored in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Stigmata is bizarre, intense, thoroughly entertaining and above all subverts the reader’s perception of just what science fiction can do. This is true of many of Dick’s books, just start reading and you are in for a wild ride. Stigmata is a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Dick’s writing.

Dick’s writing mostly negates science fiction’s usual obsession with predicting the future. Most of his books are set in the near future and usually within the confines of the solar system. Furthermore Dick certainly didn’t write space operas, although part of me wished that he had. Dick’s main interest was placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, usually mind-bending and unfathomable in nature. The events in Dick’s narratives are not only weird to the reader, but also to the protagonists. Dick gets away with presenting weird realities in his stories because his characters are very believable and are usually ordinary individuals the reader can relate to. A great example of this is the policeman in Flow My Tears the Policeman Said (1974) who has to deal with some intensely strange situations, yet he has reoccurring sinus problems and a yearning to connect. Many of his characters are usually neurotic or have very human flaws, like being messy or hopeless at relationships. In fact one could argue that Dick was a humanist science fiction writer. Also, characterisation is one of Dick’s great strengths, something that was often missing in his contemporaries writing. As Divine Invasions reveals, Dick quite often sourced his characters from those around him, his relationships and from his own numerous neurosis.

Another fascinating aspect to Dick’s writing is the fact that because he set many of his stories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries we are essentially now living in their time frames. Although we don’t have flying cars, and Dick loved flying cars (in novels such as Flow my Tears the Policeman Said and The Game Players of Titan (1963) flying cars are sarcastic, stubborn and offer unwanted advice about their owner’s lives), in many ways we are living in times that he would recognize. The interactive and malleable digital society that we take for granted is far weirder than we think. The technology of the Web has created an environment in which duplicity and occluded reality are as easy to create as ever before. The sinister implications of this would be easily recognizable to Dick. The kind of technology that is used to deceive, to control and to spy in modern times could have come right out of some of Dick’s narratives (this would have made him very paranoid). In some ways, though, Dick would have been proud that we have become aware that the universe is way weirder than we could have ever imagined. As an interesting aside, for William Gibson, one of the most significant science fiction writers of the last thirty years, the multiple layered realities of Dick’s near future narratives have become symptomatic of our times. Gibson has mostly given up on the future, setting his recent novels in the present because he believes that it is weirder than any future he can now imagine. See the great quote: The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed. *

Dick’s life and work would get stranger before he died in 1982 of multiple stokes and a heart attack. His life came to resemble his books and fittingly he began to place himself as characters in their narratives; in VALIS (1981) he was known entertainingly as Horselover Fat and sometimes he would appear as multiple characters at odds with each other or sharing the same experiences. Dick managed the post-modern trick of inserting his life into his novels as a reaction to his life becoming like his novels – they just bled into each other.

In what became known as the 2-3-74 experiences, Dick ‘received’ via beams of light a series of insights, messages and visions that obsessed him for the rest of his life. These visions he ‘received’ in 1974 conferred to him that reality, as humanity knew it, was an illusion, that in fact we were trapped in time by an outside force. These were religious experiences for Dick and he spent years pondering his visions and insights. Helped along by his vast knowledge of the world’s religions, Dick kept a diary he called the Exegesis, that helped him explore his experiences. Apparently the Exegesis journal is to be published shortly. Safe to say, as Sutin noted, Dick did not take himself too seriously and throughout the Exegesis writings he wonders whether he’s just a delusional hack. Dick’s last three novels published during his lifetime explore these experiences and obsessions – VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982).

Apparently Dick regarded himself as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’, and I think that description is apt. Philip K. Dick is a hip writer insomuch that many get into his books because of his reputation and his mind-boggling plots, however he offers much more than that. Dick deserves to be read because he challenges the reader and his writing is intensely thought provoking and insightful. Personally I still have much to look forward to, as I’m yet to read such greats as Ubik (1969) and Martian Time Slip (1964). If you think that you may be immune to the lure of Dick’s writings, that he was just a delusional writer of pulp sci-fi, then please set aside your presumptions and give his writings a chance. After all, you are living in a ‘Phildickian’ universe but you just don’t know it yet. **

·      I couldn’t find the interview in which Gibson talks about the present, but this is entertaining in any case.

** Or now maybe you do after reading the above?

Sunday 2 October 2011

Five Bells – Gail Jones (2011)

Before I started to read Five Bells I had a number of impressions in my mind. The first was of Gail Jones herself, her petite face in the half-light of the corridors of the Arts department at UWA in the nineties when I was there studying literature. She was an academic at UWA and although I never had her as a tutor or lecturer I knew who she was and despite seemingly retiring personality she had a presence. Even then I thought I’d read one of her books at some stage.

The second was shortly before I started to read the book in question, which had been selected by the Subiaco Library Book Club, I mentioned that I was about to start reading it to a male library patron. He told me that he had given up on “that book”. He concluded by saying that it was book for “women”. So, I thought, what does that mean? I never really got to the bottom of it at the time and therefore dismissed it as matter of taste.

I’d also read that Five Bells was influenced by the Modernists and in particular Virginia Woolf, of whom I’d read The Waves  (1931) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Despite such quality influences, or perhaps because of it, I cringed a few times in the opening twenty pages or so at the mannered and florid prose. It seemed that Jones was trying too hard to impress. Despite this Jones manages to settle the novel into a decent display of character building, in particular the characters of Ellie and James, two childhood friends now to be reunited. Ellie and James interior lives are fleshed out with their memories of childhood, their sexual connection as teenagers and their lives after that. Jones evokes a mostly satisfying interior world of regret, suffering, and joy. Their back-stories are played out against the tension of their first contact with each other for many years. The sections leading up to their reunion were certainly the most enjoyable for me. Jones evokes beautifully the bitter sweetness of interconnected lives truncated by the circumstances of dysfunction. An easy connect is created between the reader and the characters and is one of the novel’s strengths

The other two significant characters are both expatriates who have their own stories to tell. Pei Xing, an elderly Chinese woman who lived through the hardships of Communism in China and Catherine, an Irish woman trying to escape a family tragedy. These characters are also haunted by their pasts. This is the crux of Five Bells - time, memory, emotion and rich interior musings set against an evocative and symbolically laden physical backdrop, in this case circular quay and the water of Sydney Harbor. The success of Modernism’s influence on this novel is debatable, with some of the prose coming across as contrived. However there are some beautiful descriptive moments and the back-story of Pei Xing, who is perhaps the most intriguing character, is certainly fascinating. Pei Xing and her particular story could have warranted her own novel, even one laden with Modernist tropes.

The ending, of which some of my book club members found unsatisfactory, at least brings a concrete resolution for one of the characters. The swirling water of the harbor, the pain of the past and the intense emotion of the present merge into a conclusion that makes a sizable impact. If you are interested in the poem, Five Bells (1939) by Kenneth Slessor, that inspired the novel, then you’d better steer clear until after you’ve finished otherwise the ending of the novel will become all too apparent.

Sunday 25 September 2011

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht (2010)

One of my colleagues asked me what book we going to do next for the book club. I told him The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht and without hesitation he asked whether she was young and good-looking. Well, she is indeed both. He then went on to claim that publishing houses are, for one reason or another, pushing young and good looking authors because, well, they are a sure bet when it comes to actually selling books. This is, of course, arguable, and perhaps there is something to it. However you can be young and good-looking, but unless you can write well you are not going to sell books. So can Tea Obreht write? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more complex.

The Tiger’s Wife has won the Orange Prize. Obreht was named by The New Yorker as one best writers under 40 (she’s 25). Obreht is also the youngest author to have won the Orange Prize for fiction. Obreht studied in the U.S, her adoptive home after her and her parents fled Yugoslavia before the war, under author T.C. Boyle, learning to hone her craft. The Tiger’s Wife does read like a crafted piece of work, and you can sometimes see the joins. The narrator of the novel is Natalia, a young doctor trying to make a difference in post war former Yugoslavia. Over the course of the novel Natalia fails to engage the reader, as there’s something two dimensional about her character. This isn’t helped by the sometimes matter of fact and stilted writing. There’s just not much tension generated by pose that is just too careful and too crafted, which results in a curious lack of engagement with Natalia and some of the other characters.

The novel does have its strengths however, enough to make it worth reading and for the book to stay with you for a while. There’s the tiger of course, escaped from a zoo during bombing and ending up roaming outside and inside a remote mountain village. This is where Natalia’s grandfather, the most sympathetic character in the book, encounters the beast and the tale of the tiger’s wife unfolds. This is done slowly, interspaced with less interesting chapters set just after the Yugoslavian war that fragmented that country. The grandfather is a retired doctor set in his ways and full of tales and experiences. He tells Natalia about his encounters with the Deathless Man, perhaps the greatest creation in the book. The Deathless Man is both charming and sinister in an ambiguous way. He’s fascinating and it is here that Obreht’s possible future as a writer of note reveals its promise. I will not tell you too much so not to spoil the impact of this great character.

There are many other characters, many of which have long back-stories and some that engage more than others. It’s somewhat of a tapestry, set across disparate periods of time and told through fables and tall tales, some of which are very entertaining. There are also very realistic sections towards the end that portray what it may be like to live through the bombing of a city. These sections are both horrific and graphic, without being obvious, something that is hard to pull off. Finally there’s some tension is at play and it’s a pity that this isn’t present in the rest of the book.

Some readers will not be taken by The Tiger’s Wife, but for those willing to be seduced by its charms and are willing to overlook its flaws the book offers much to enjoy. Apparently Random House has bought out the rights to her next work, so the future is indeed bright for Obreht.

Friday 9 September 2011

The Ouroboros Wave – Jyouji Hayashi (2002)

I saw this sitting on the large book table at my favourite bookshop, Planet Books, and couldn’t resist it initially because it had a great cover. Then I read the blurb and thought that it could be my kind of book. It turns out that it was, although with some reservations.

I know almost nothing about Japanese science fiction and I have to admit although I’ve been reading science fiction on and off since I was about 10 my knowledge of the last 20 years or so is fragmented. No matter, I plunged in and immediately found that the writing style is quite dry, so much so that it almost reads like a textbook. The narrative suffers because of it, in particular the characters, most of which are rendered one-dimensional, at least until the latter half of the book. It’s a shame because the first half of the book would have been far more engaging otherwise.

The basic premise is that with humanity expanding into the solar system a division has emerged between the humans of Earth and the humans living and working in space that come under the banner of AADD (Artificial Accretion Disk Development Association). The opening section, dated 2123, concerns the initial stages of the building of a ring like structure around a newly discovered micro black hole. Humanity, at this stage, has the capacity to actually change the micro black hole’s trajectory from a potential collision with the sun to one in orbit around Uranus. Heady stuff.

The chapters are episodic, involve many different characters and are spread out over 48 years. There are political, psychological, and scientific aspects throughout this novel, all of which takes you to a conclusion that is predictable in its subject matter but fairly original in its ideas and concepts. This novel is hard science fiction to its core, with diagrams of the ring called Ouroboros and its habitat modules. There are also detailed explanations of the physics behind technological innovations and humanity’s successes in space.

Overall, despite the dry style (possibly as a result of being translated from Japanese), The Ouroboros Wave is a worthwhile read. I’ll certainly read Hayashi’s other books if and when they are translated into English.