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.