Monday 30 April 2012

New Edition Bookshop – Fremantle, Western Australia

New Edition has had a long history in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. Initially established in a small shop on the main cappuccino strip of downtown Fremantle, it moved about five years ago into an old bank building on High St. This building makes New Edition an attractive place to shop for books. With a classical looking fa├žade sporting what are possibly Greek Ionic columns and a spectacular entrance, the building oozes character. 

It’s a huge shop and one of the great things about visiting New Edition are the comfortable chairs and tables set up for browsing your potential purchases. I love the layout, with the ceiling high wooden shelves and the lamps and sculptures. Overall it’s decked out very tastefully with rugs and posters and due to the character of the old bank interior you really don’t want to leave in a hurry. If you go to the very back of the huge space you’ll see the former bank vaults with the original doors intact. 

One of New Edition’s specialties is a wide range of reference books covering architecture, cooking, design, art, theatre, music and photography, amongst other subjects. Their stock is beautiful, varied and full of hard to get editions. The fiction section has everything you need coupled with all the books you didn’t know you needed. I find it interesting that they mix the science fiction in with the literature – no literature/genre distinctions here. Make sure you have plenty of money if you visit, as it is extremely hard to resist buying just one book. 

New Edition is a high-end boutique bookshop and well worth visiting when you are in Fremantle. They have recently established a tiny coffee shop at the front of the store so that you can boost your capacity to take it all in with tea or coffee; or you can just sit out on their front verandah. Another great thing is that just down the street the Bill Campbell Book Store awaits to fulfill your second-hand book needs. Give them both a visit and help keep bookshops alive – they are not simply just businesses, but are also important cultural hubs in our community.

Monday 23 April 2012

Muriel Spark Reading Week

Over at the great book blog - Stuck in a Book they are hosting a Muriel Spark reading week. If you'd like to contribute or comment then visit the site here. I will be contributing at some stage in a minor way. It's a great idea and I think that it will be well supported.

Meanwhile - keep reading!

Monday 16 April 2012

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt (2011)

Waiting in my chiropractor’s treatment room I spied this book on his bookshelf. I was looking it over when he came in and he immediately insisted that I borrow it. He was very enthusiastic about the book and so I obliged. After reading the book I now know that my good-natured chiropractic practitioner is a fan of dark humour and a high body count. He also knows what he is talking about because The Sisters Brothers is a fine novel and also one that manages to reinvigorate the Western for a modern palette by going beyond genre conventions into the realm of literature.

Set in 1850 on the west coast of America, the novel concerns the picaresque journey of two brothers who are in the employ of the Commodore (a wealthy thug basically) as hired killers on the trail of a strange individual called Hermann Kermit Warm. Charles is the eldest brother and is also the most headstrong and violent. Eli is the novel’s narrator and voice of reason amongst the carnage. Eli and Charles are infamous killers and they attract and involve themselves in various killings and misfortunes, many of which they take in their stride with psychopathic aplomb.

There is a great deal of casual black humour associated with the situations the brothers get themselves into and Eli’s dry observations are often both entertaining and drolly insightful. Despite being dysfunctional killers in the employ of a powerfully evil businessman, De Witt’s depiction of the brothers makes them very sympathetic characters. Eli’s predilection towards questioning the validity of his profession and to yearn for a more settled lifestyle is contrasted with Charles’s confident and bloodthirsty attitude. Despite this Eli’s love for his brother shines through. We also see Eli clumsily attempt to woo various women and treat strangers fairly until proven otherwise. Eli also cares deeply for his ineffectual horse, which at one stage he saves from a bear and keeps riding it even though it is seriously compromised by a mauled eye. He’s a killer with a heart of gold it seems.

The novel benefits from the simple yet effective plot. After the Sisters brothers manage to become sidetracked into all kinds of adventures on their way to kill Hermann Warm, they arrive in California to find that Henry Morris (a dandy informer in the employ of the Commodore) has absconded with their target for the goldfields of California. Here’s where the tale becomes very dark indeed. Whether or not this tale is a cautionary one, or has some kind of allegorical subtext, is very much up to the reader. I cannot make up my mind just how deep deWitt’s tale goes, but fortunately you do not need to worry either way, as the novel is very entertaining in any case.

Personally I’m a fan of spaghetti westerns and the HBO series Deadwood and I find this period in American history to be fascinating, even via potentially historically dubious mediums. So the plot held great entertainment value for me and I appreciated that deWitt made the effort to give the characters historically authentic speech patterns and turns of phrase. At least it seemed authentic to me when comparing it to Deadwood, in which the producers went for authenticity, unlike their series Rome in which the Romans spoke like modern day citizens.

I was sorry when this novel ended as I’d become attached to the Sisters brothers and was thoroughly hooked into caring about what happened to them. The Sisters Brothers was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, which is in many ways better than actually winning it, which seems to be a bit of a curse these days. The Sisters Brothers is not the greatest book ever written, but it is an example of how to write a tale that manages to be both literate and engaging. Meanwhile I may well check out deWitt’s debut novel Ablutions (2009), which has Bukowskiesque themes that I find very attractive in a book.

Monday 9 April 2012

The Magus – John Fowles (1966)

Initially The Magus seems intimidating, boasting 650 pages of dense type. Then there is its reputation as one of the great cult books; described as being a cascade of literary, philosophical and psychological pretensions in Gina McKinnon’s 500 Essential Cult Books (2010). Whilst such descriptions are relevant, the novel offers far more than these perfunctory summations, being one of those genuine masterpieces that can both challenge and enthrall the reader. Fowles spent over ten years writing the book and also ended up rewriting sections for a new edition released in 1977. The Magus is a complex novel and will take you on an enthralling journey if you are prepared to invest both time and patience.

Set in post WWII Britain, the novel’s protagonist – Nicholas Urfe, is both inhibited by his upbringing and restless within his own middle class society. The novel is divided into three sections, with the first being concerned with Nicholas’ life in the shadow of his parents and the stifling conformity of early 1950’s Britain and also his early days in Greece. This initial section is by no means a dull prologue, with Fowles revealing an unpretentious narrative style that displays a clear and sparse beauty, particularly in the later sections set in Greece.

In frustration Nicholas applies for and gains employment at an exclusive private school on a remote Greek island known as Phraxos (based on the island of Spetsai, where Fowles taught English at the Anargyrios College in the 1950’s). Before he is able to leave he becomes involved with an Australian woman called Alison. He spurns her love and arrives in Greece in a conflicted state of mind.  His lonely exploration of the small island soon brings him into contact with Maurice Conchis, the eponymous ‘Magus’ figure of the book. Having heard about this mysterious character during a brief meeting with his predecessor Nicholas can’t help but be curious.

“Are you elect?” This is the question that Maurice Conchis asks Nicholas just before Conchis starts to take him, and the reader, down some vary strange paths. I looked up the meaning of this word and I believe that Fowles uses this term as a noun, meaning either a person worthy to be chosen, or the theological meaning: when a person or persons are chosen by God, especially for favor or salvation. After finishing this remarkable novel I believe that this is a question that is also aimed at the reader.

The long middle section can only be described as a total head-trip. I cannot think of a more apt term to describe the shifting realities of Nicholas’s interaction with Conchis and the philosophical and metaphysical concepts that challenge Nicholas’s conception of his own place in the cosmos. This section is supremely suspenseful and I totally surrendered to Fowles’ tricks as he drove the narrative forward with increasingly mysterious and extreme events. I found myself thinking about the book constantly and was driven to read it to discover just what was going to happen next, making this novel perhaps the most enjoyable I’ve read for quite some time. The Magus is also perhaps the most intense book I’ve ever read. I advise you to read this book when you have plenty of time to think about its themes and also to have time to recover from the tension it creates. I suggest some fine red wine to facilitate both!

Fowles has been described as one of the first British post-modern writers. I can’t personally judge the validity of this claim, however the novel does invite the reader to make their own judgments about the meaning of Nicholas’s experiences at the hands of the duplicitous Conchis and his never-ending ‘masque’. Fowles has famously refused to explain the meaning of The Magus, except on one rare occasion, of which I suggest you read after you’ve tackled the novel and thought about it yourself. I came to three conclusions about the meaning of what Fowles was portraying during the course of the novel, two of which correspond roughly with his summation and a third that did not. I’m not going to talk about what I believe the novel is about because each new reader will need to come to his or her own conclusions. Let me know what you thought or contact me if you want to know what I thought.

The third and final section of the novel finds Nicholas back in England a changed man in search of answers. This section’s bleak tone and slow pacing is in stark contrast to the intense middle section, but works well as a necessary coda to the events of the rest of the book. The ending is famous for being inconclusive and baffling, however after thinking about it for some time I realized that it is totally apt and fits well with my own conclusions about the book; in fact it serves to push you in the right direction if your eyes are open. The Magus is a work of genius and for the first time in this blog’s short history I am giving it a sublime rating.