Wednesday 30 December 2015

My Back Pages

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

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

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

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

Monday 28 December 2015

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (1932)

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

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

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

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

Sunday 29 November 2015

The Golden Age - Joan London (2014)

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 November 2015

The Go-Betweens Anthology Volume 1: 1978-1984 - Robert Forster et al (2014)

The Go-Betweens back in the day - Forster front left, McLennan middle rear.

This book is only available as a part of The Go-Betweens box set: The Go-Betweens Anthology Volume 1: 1978-1984, although such is the quality of the writing I’m sure at some stage after the third volume is released it will all be published as a stand alone tome. The Go-Betweens formed in Brisbane in the late seventies and were nurtured within the punk/post-punk scene before emerging to become one of the most influential pop-rock bands of the nineteen eighties. Although mostly commercially unsuccessful at the time the band were the critics darlings and have since been rightly remembered as a great Australian band.

The Go-Betweens were a very literary band, so it was no surprise to learn that the two founding members, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, met whilst attending an English course at Queensland University in 1975. Inside the pages of this beautifully presented book the story of The Go-Betweens is cleverly retold by Forster in the third person with an immediacy and poignancy that is addictive to read. There’s a kind of romantic innocence about two awkward outsiders creating themselves as the rock equivalent of cult fiction. Whilst most Brisbane bands practiced noisy punk or rancid metal they wrote songs about librarians and faded movie stars. They casually self mythologized, labeling their music as “That striped sunlight sound”, giving them a certain level of pretension that worked both for and against them.

The book features archival photography from the band’s earliest days and ephemera such as gig posters, critical reviews and single covers. There are many choice items, such as a reproduction of a review of Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) written by McLennan whilst at university. There’s also a post-card sent by McLennan to Forster commenting on some demos the latter had sent hoping to pique the former’s interest. Forster’s brilliant anthology notes ends in 1984 and is followed by several essays by people who were associated with the band. There’s the obligatory detailed discography and then most surprising of all a section of Grant McLennan’s poems from that era, some of which are actually pretty good.

The music featured in what will be the first of three vinyl box sets is the sound of a band growing up in public; initially ramshackle but sometimes oddly brilliant, then flowering into sublimely evocative songs that connect both intellectually and emotionally. As brilliant as this box set is I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t manage to get my hands on one of the first 600 copies that contained a book from Grant McLennan’s massive personal library, all verified and signed by Forster and some with notes in the margins from McLennan himself (apparently there are another twelve hundred for the next two sets...). Sadly Grant McLennan died aged 48 in 2006. A few weeks before his death Forster and McLennan met for the last time, as recalled by Forster in this piece for The Monthly. As Forster was leaving McLennan’s house he pulled from the letterbox an issue of the New York Review of Books and commented that he didn’t know that McLennan had subscribed to that particular literary magazine. As Forster drove away he thought that McLennan was probably the only singer-songwriter or rock star who had such a subscription. I have no doubt that Forster’s assumption was correct, after all The Go-Betweens were that kind of band.

Thursday 29 October 2015

A Brief History of the Future - Jacques Attali (2006)

I bought this book on a whim a year ago, having spied it on the shelves of one of my favourite bookstores, Diabolik. I thought I’d better read it before the future arrived, not realizing that it had been published in 2006! I’ve long been a sucker for any kind of media that attempted to forecast what the future may be like. We do seem to be on the cusp of massive changes on this planet, but just what will they be? Will it is be dystopia or utopia for humanity? Typically the future will probably be somewhere in-between these two extremes. When you pick up a book entitled A Brief History of the Future the expectation is that it will have at least some feasible answers. After all, according to the blurb on the back of the book Attali had previously predicted the financial rise of Asia, the advent of what he refers to as ‘nomadic technologies’ and the GFC. I approached this book with great enthusiasm, but unfortunately left it feeling underwhelmed and entertaining the thought that I would make a better futurist than the likes of Attali.

Attali notes in his forward that the shape of our future is being set by events and choices that we are making in the present; therefore logically past events have always set the future in motion. With this in mind he then proceeds with a potted history of the past, including when life itself emerged from the oceans and that momentous time when our ancestors first began to walk upright. This chapter reads like a highly generalized and accelerated version of prehistory, which unfortunately doesn’t give the reader much confidence in what will follow. There are also some glaring flaws, although they may well be caused by a fault in translation (Attali is French). Attali refers to the likes of Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis (and others) as primates, when I’m certain the correct term is hominids. Also some assertions are already dated, with Attali claiming that “All these primates - neighbors but not of kin - coexist without interbreeding.” In recent years a great deal of evidence has emerged that interbreeding between some hominids was occurring. These criticisms are perhaps unfair, however much more glaring is the total lack of referencing throughout this and the following chapter. Attali makes claim after claim regarding the lives and practices of early humans without citing any kind of reliable sources. Is it really “doubtless” that cannibalism began 300,000 years ago? And that around 160,000 years ago slavery began? What discoveries or research led to these notions? Are we just meant to take his word for it? (like I ask you to take mine?).

The long chapter entitled ‘A Brief History of Capitalism’ is far more coherent and persuasive, despite its lack of citations. Attali details the history of what he refers to as the mercantile order and suggests that as the mercantile order evolved over the centuries it fostered more and more individual freedoms and therefore became an engine of democracy. Attali’s principal argument focuses on the nine ‘cores’ of the mercantile order that have been at the forefront of capitalism over the centuries - Bruges, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and currently Los Angeles. This long chapter leads to, almost inevitably, a chapter entitled ‘The End of the American Empire’. Logically the evolution of capitalism over the centuries points to an inevitable decline in the dominant core, something that has happened again and again; mostly caused by internal dysfunctions, mainly financial, and challenges from the outside. Attali’s arguments are persuasive simply because it is all too easy to see past trends emerge again. He argues that as soon as post 2030 the “ninth form will have lived its day” and that America could become a Scandinavian style social democracy or a dictatorship. Well, we’ll see!

As to what comes next Attali points to three possible ‘waves of the future’ for this century: planetary empire, planetary war and planetary democracy. While it is too complex to adequately sum up how and why each wave could be possible there are a number of key points for each worth noting. Planetary empire involves a possible decoupling of the mercantile order from a central city core, becoming a roaming entity mostly via the borderless world wide web. Planetary war all too ominously involves multiple scenarios ranging from endless minor conflicts to all out war involving what he calls ‘pirate’ entities taking it up to the major powers. ISIS is certainly shaping up to be such an entity. Planetary democracy is, rather optimistically, the inevitable endgame for the century. While some of his arguments for this third wave are sound, some are also are also dubious. Attali cites the emergence of  ‘vanguard players’, or ‘trans-humans’; altruistic citizens that will “ relational enterprises in which profit will be no more than a hindrance, not a final goal.” The cynic in me can’t help but consider that this viewpoint is naively Utopian and that humanity will not be able to curb its self destructive impulses.

A Brief History of the Future is a moderately interesting book with some compelling ideas. Ultimately, however, the book is flawed, particularly the chapters that deal with the future, which simply make too many assumptions. It’s a tough business this futurism, but in a strange way Attali makes it appear that anyone with some understanding of history and capitalism could give it a go. I’m certainly ready and willing. I have a reasonable knowledge of emergent technologies and have a pretty good understanding of history and current events. Hey - I’m a futurist! Personally I believe that certain emergent technologies could completely alter society and what it is to be human, even more so than current computer technology coupled with the internet. If genuine AI technology is developed, possibly coupled with quantum computing, then that would be a huge game changer. If longevity drugs, now entering an exciting research and development phase, come to fruition, then society and the economy will be challenged with significant changes that have never been seen before. These three technologies (five actually - but don’t get me started on robotics and 3D printing) were touched on only briefly by Attali, leaving me to think that his vision of the future is only part of the possible story at best.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (1962)

I must admit that I was ignorant of Doris Lessing until only a few years ago when she was name dropped by Robert Fripp in an interview for Mojo Magazine. In the interview he recalled how one night on tour in the US with King Crimson he brushed off a waiting groupie after the gig and instead went back to his hotel room to read his Doris Lessing novel! He didn’t mention which one, but I wonder if it was The Golden Notebook? (no doubt it was one of her science fiction novels...). My ignorance about Lessing is reasonably shameful because she is a significant writer and a cultural figure of some renown. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007 and was listed in fifth place on The Times list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Lessing was also outspoken about feminism, culture and politics and was for a time in the 1950s a member of the British Communist Party, which resulted in her being spied on by the MI5 for twenty years. She even collaborated with composer Philip Glass, writing lyrics for two operas based on her work.

The Golden Notebook is one of Lessing’s most recognized novels and as I was soon to discover also one of her most challenging. The principle protagonist is Anna Wulf, a writer suffering from writers block and also a particular kind of mental anguish that comes with living in the 1950s; confused gender roles, the cold war, nuclear weapons and a stifling conservatism that is already beginning to crumble. The narrative is highly structured; divided into sections according to notebooks - black, red, yellow and blue, finishing with the golden notebook that unites them all. At regular intervals there are sections ironically titled ‘Free Women’ (or “ironical” - a word that Wulf uses incessantly throughout the novel), which feature Wulf, her friend Molly, their children and a host of male characters, most of whom are reprehensible. Like Lessing herself in the 1950s, Wulf is a member of the Communist Party and the red notebook reveals a deep disillusionment with the Soviet Union as the revelations about Stalin’s reign become too hard to ignore. The black notebook explores Wulf’s writing life, with all its inherent frustrations. Wulf is psychologically unable to accept her life as a writer and resents its bittersweet rewards and suffocating writers block. The yellow notebook records her emotional life and the blue her every day life. Both are fraught with the pressures of life and reveal a woman very much on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a theme that Lessing notes in her preface from 1971 as being more significant than the political and feminist themes.

Within the notebook sections there is further experimentation with form, with Wulf creating fiction that explores what is actually happening in her life. There are significant motifs that are repeated throughout: Wulf endlessly wants to leave the Communist Party and she is constantly drawn to married men, or they are drawn to her. Lessing explores changing gender roles in post war Britain, in which female identity is in flux. The irony inherent in the Free Women sections is that whilst the female characters live independently of men, they continually define themselves by their relationships with them. The male characters are generally dissatisfied and are prone to misogynist behavior that is unfortunately all too believable. Some hard ‘truths’ are explored throughout The Golden Notebook and Lessing is rightly admired for having been so bold in both her themes and her execution. However the novel is also flawed, containing a great deal of stilted dialogue. Many of the scenes are designed to put ideas across and then to repeatedly hammer them home. At times the novel is turgid, filled with endless character ruminations about their own situation or the plight of society as a whole. Also it doesn’t help there is absolutely no humour in the novel whatsoever. A mere one hundred pages into the novel it occurred to me that it was the most neurotic writing I’d ever read and Wulf was the most neurotic character I’d ever encountered. The narrative is painfully self aware and is intensely psychological in an uncomfortably way; it just never lets up and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It took me two hundred pages to finally become absorbed by the narrative. The middle third, although unrelentingly demanding, was almost enjoyable, yet by the last third I once again felt like I was wading through narrative quicksand.

This uncompromising book is certainly a challenge, but is it a challenge that is worthwhile? To answer that question requires writing endless pages of rumination in several notebooks, followed by periods of angst and the obsessive cutting out of articles from newspapers to stick onto the walls. Actually, whoops, that’s the book! Curiously, however, reading The Golden Notebook was a rewarding experience, although exactly why is hard to pin down. The novel is certainly significant culturally both for its impact on the feminist movement and its brave experiments with form; but the novel has dated significantly, being very much a product of its times and in that context it can perhaps be viewed as an anthropological document of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life against the backdrop of history.

Monday 28 September 2015

Book Club Decade

This month is the ten year anniversary of the book club at Subiaco Public Library. When the book club was first started there was an immediate response from the public and we had seventeen people at the first session. Ten years later people from that first session are still coming along every sixth week to talk about our latest book and literature in general. Many other members are still coming along after seven or eight years. As facilitator this is of course very pleasing, but it also indicates that for a certain kind of person belonging to a book club is a very rewarding experience.

What is it about book clubs that is so appealing? The principle benefit of joining a book club is that it forces you out of your reading comfort zone. If you are willing to be dedicated and make the effort to read every book, rather than taking the easy way out and merely reading those with immediate appeal, then the benefits are manifold. A disciplined attitude towards reading assists getting through difficult or challenging narratives that might otherwise be abandoned. Reading with a purpose also means reading with a different perspective. You will learn a great deal and also the ability to critically assess texts is gradually developed; a skill that enables a deeper and more rewarding reading experience.

Facilitating the book club for ten years has meant that I’ve read about ninety books that I know I never would have considered reading otherwise. Some I wished I hadn’t read, but most have been of value and a certain amount have been brilliant. At the moment I’m reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook  (1962) and I have to say that it is proving to be a difficult experience. It took me two hundred pages to finally become immersed in the book and I know that once I finish it I’ll be relieved, however I’m also being exposed to a particular world view and a writing style that I otherwise would have not experienced.

If you’ve ever considered joining a book club, or starting one of your own, then don’t hesitate. If you are willing to be dedicated and select mostly challenging literature then it will enrich your life enormously. Also if you are a single middle aged or older man looking to meet someone then join a book club. Book clubs seem to be the domain of middle aged and older women. With only about five percent of members over the ten years having been male, it’s an indication that it is a potential dating trend that for now remains mostly untapped.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Seven Eves - Neal Stephenson (2015)

Part 3

It was with some relief that I went back to reading Seven Eves after enduring nineteenth century Italian decay and decadence as portrayed in The Leopard. Set five thousand years after the events in parts one and two, the decedents of the survivors of humanity’s dash into near Earth orbit now number in the billions and have established a ring of habitats around the still recovering Earth. What Stephenson offers here is a compelling portrayal of humanity reborn; a humanity capable of manipulating the environment like never before, but typically still displaying all the flaws of the ‘old Earth’ humans five thousand years ago.

Whilst the first two parts of Seven Eves were rooted firmly in near future hard science fiction, the third part is more speculative and it is very entertaining indeed. Stephenson describes a near earth orbital habitat ring that is every science fiction junky’s ultimate fantasy. Also impressive is the fascinating history of the five thousand year exile from the earth, which is gradually revealed throughout the third part. The surface of the earth is now habitable once again and efforts are underway to terraform it with organisms created in the laboratory using DNA data saved on thumb drives by the survivors of old earth. Stephenson makes it all seem perfectly feasible and takes great pains to explain the science behind the amazing hardware and bio-tech on display. Basically once again he can not contain his inner geek and floods the narrative with detail about how everything works and why, however this tendency works better for him when his imagination is allowed to escape the confines of near future technology.

As with the first two parts the characters are well rounded enough to not detract from the plot arc. As with most epics there are a plethora of characters, most being descendants from those who survived in space after the ‘hard rain’. Stephenson goes into great detail explaining the genetic diversity behind each of the main seven races of humans, but fortunately it’s fascinating stuff. Kath Two, a Moiran, is in ‘survey’ and is prone to being epigenetic: able to change her body under the influence of new environments. Beled Tomov is a Teklan, a muscle-bound hero type, and so it goes. Special mention must be made of Longobard, a ‘Neoander’ - that’s right, you guessed it, the future human race went and brought back Neanderthals.

Although the speculative science fiction of the third part is impressive, I found the end game of the novel to be slightly disappointing, however the overall impact of the novel, which is epic in every sense of the word, makes up for this slight flaw. In many ways the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, or even a series of books. The cynic in me feels that this is certainly likely, but that will not stop me from reading it if it does eventually eventuate.

Monday 31 August 2015

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

The Leopard is considered to be one of the greatest novels in Italian literature and also one of the greatest historical novels. Despite initially being rejected by several publishing houses the novel went on to both be critically lauded and commercially successful, going on to sell over three million copies. The Leopard was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed film by Luchino Visconti in 1963. Set between 1860 and 1910, the novel explores the political changes brought about by the unification of Italy and explores the themes of mortality and the power of historical change over the individual, mostly from the perspective of Prince Fabrizio Cornbana, a character based on Lampedusa’s grandfather.

Before tackling The Leopard I’d advise reading something about the history of Italy during this period in order to at least understand the basics, as it will greatly enhance reading enjoyment. Like much of Europe Italy underwent the ructions of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the process of the unification of Italy’s disparate states was played out in Sicily when Giuseppe Garibaldi’s forces, known as ‘The Thousand’, invaded the island which led to the eventual capitulation of its incumbent rulers. The Prince, although outwardly powerful both in stature and wealth, is a melancholic figure who is more interested in astronomy than his duty to the realm. As the revolution happens he merely accepts its inevitability and carries on as before, although he is forced to head the famous words of his rebellious nephew, Tancredi, that “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”; a quote that escaped the confines of the novel to become somewhat of a cliche.

Ultimately whether or not you enjoy The Leopard depends on what you want from a novel. Those who appreciate beautiful well crafted prose would certainly find much to admire. Outwardly nothing much seems to happen plot wise as the majority of the Garabaldi led revolution occurs off stage. Instead there is a subtle exploration of decadence, mortality and a very European ennui. The Prince Fabrizio Cornbana may be wealthy, but he is trapped in a stifling world of nobility that he often feels alienated from and instead he prefers such intellectual pursuits as astronomy and mathematics. Those who enjoy history being brought alive will also find much to enjoy; Lampedusa encapsulates the landscape of Sicily and its history in a way that somehow engages all of the senses. In essence the novel is both intellectual and sensual, wholly succeeding in its portrayal of individuals being swept up by events mostly beyond their control.

Despite The Leopard’s obvious qualities and its reputation as a significant work in the canon of European literature, I did not fully engage with the novel. Although the prose is certainly beautiful, stylistically it has more in common with nineteenth century literature than that of the first fifty years of the twentieth century, something that perhaps caused my interest to wane at regular intervals. Overall it was very much the case of appreciating rather than enjoying The Leopard, which is no doubt sacrilege to a significant amount of admirers of the novel who read it at least once a year and claim it as one of their all time favourite books.

Friday 14 August 2015

Seven Eves - Neal Stephenson (2015)

Parts 1 & 2

Seven Eves is my first Neal Stephenson novel, which means that I’m possibly arriving later to his work than pretty much everyone else interested in speculative fiction. I’ve been meaning to read his cyberpunk masterpiece Snow Crash (1992) for years now, but for some reason it has always passed me by. Seven Eves is an epic novel, both thematically and physically and consequently I’ve had to abandon it two thirds of the way through in order to start reading the diametrically opposite The Leopard (1958) by the gloriously named Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in order to be prepared to run the upcoming book clubs at the library later this month. So rather than wait almost a month to talk about Seven Eves I thought I’d start with the first two parts.

Essentially Seven Eves is an apocalyptic novel that begins literally on page one with the moon blowing up due to a passing micro black hole, referred to as ‘the agent’. (I’m not really giving anything away here by the way...). Seven Eves is set in a near future in which the U.S president is female, the international space station, which is attached to an asteroid, is still in operation and technology is marginally more advanced than present times. Parts one and two detail the desperate two year effort by humanity to get enough people into space to survive the destruction of the biosphere by what is termed as the ‘hard rain’, which is the fall of millions of destabilized chunks of the shattered moon.

The novel’s premise is brilliant in its simplicity and the first two thirds mostly lives up to this initial promise. The science in Seven Eves' fiction is resolutely hard and although this helps in the credulity stakes Stephenson’s tendency to go into long detailed explanations means that some sections become almost tedious. The inner geek within Stephenson obviously just can’t help himself. This is, fortunately, not a fatal flaw and the story gradually becomes more absorbing and exciting. Once the ‘hard rain’ begins and the narrative wholly focuses on the humans selected to survive in space the novel really kicks into gear.

Although Stephenson’s characterizations are not as brilliantly realized as a science fiction writer like Iain M. Banks, the principal protagonists are rounded enough for the reader to care about what happens to them. Perhaps the strongest are two female astronauts who are stationed on the ISS, asteroid researcher and robotic expert Dinah MacQuarie and Ivy Xiao, the commander of ISS. The rather extravagant figure of Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, a popularizer of science who first works out what the future holds for planet earth, is also a memorable character. Set against the inhospitable background of space, death, and techno-babble these characters provide an important focus. What eventually happens to them creates a great segue into part three: five thousand years later. I can’t wait....

Monday 27 July 2015

To Read a Mockingbird?

'Daddy, they are making me read this boring book at school!'

With the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015) setting literary hearts a flutter To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is in heavy demand at the library. I assume that many people would be re-reading the novel before they tackle Go Set a Watchman. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, but that was way back in high school when I was fifteen. I’ve often thought that classics or modern classics are perhaps wasted on mostly uninterested teenagers. Harper Lee's novel certainly tested the limits of my interest at the time.

Other books I read at school were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). I remember finding Hemingway to be boring, but Huxley and Orwell made a more positive impact, perhaps because I was already reading science fiction. With this in mind I’ve been wondering whether I should read these novels again. I have no doubt that I would read them in a completely different way now, mostly because my perspective has been radically changed by experience and the passage of time.

Coincidentally I have also been thinking about re-reading Douglas Adam’s The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series. Would they be as brilliant and funny to the adult me as they were to the teenage me? Could a reversal of perspective occur? Would I like Harper Lee and her ilk now and not like Douglas Adams as much as when I was a teenager? It’s quite possible, but perhaps the real question is am I willing to use valuable reading time in order to find out; particularly when I have unread classic novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea (1978) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) sitting on my bookshelf. That’s right, I’m yet to read Catch-22, but if only it had been on my high school curriculum...

Thursday 23 July 2015

Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson (1994)

When Snow Falling on Cedars was published in 1994 it very quickly became a bestseller, going on to shift over four million copies. There was something about the tale set on an island just north of Seattle in the 1950’s that caught the imagination, but just what was it? Before I began reading the novel, required reading for the book club, there were two consistent responses from people who had read it already: that it was a great read, or that it was slow and boring. Curiously this was the exact same response from people who had seen the movie based on the book that came out in 1999. I steeled myself for 400 pages of boredom, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised and whilst the novel is by no means a work of genius it turns out that it is certainly a worthwhile read.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a post WWII courtroom drama that revolves around the nexus of the death of salmon fisherman Carl Heine. Fellow fisherman and childhood friend, Kabuo Miyamoto, is accused of murdering Heine after island sheriff Art Moran and his deputy pull the body of Heine from his own fishing nets. The aftermath of the war hangs heavily over the fictional island of San Piedro, which provides a beautifully brooding winter setting for the plot that quite skillfully explores the themes of racism, love, cultural identity and the impact of history on the individual.

The narrative consists of a range of back stories that gradually illuminate the present time (1954) and the court case itself. The narrative pace is slow and the style is realist; almost a throwback to nineteenth century realism. There’s great attention to detail and scenes are set with the utmost care, in particular the courtroom scenes. The overall effect is one of absorption rather than of boredom and I found myself wondering just how Guterson was making me so interested in small island life, salmon fishing and the cultivation of strawberries. Although some characters flirted with stereotype, in particular the Japanese inhabitants and the stoically brooding Carl Heine, they are alive on the page. It’s the synergy of many otherwise banal elements that makes Snow Falling on Cedars a satisfying novel to read.

If Snow Falling on Cedars were published today would it be a success? The novel is by no means innovative or difficult and basically tells a solid story in an evocative way, yet I don’t think that it would appeal to many younger readers who demand a narrative to reveal more sooner rather than later. Perhaps the modern day tendency toward narrative greed is too great for patience to triumph; a notion that is given credence by the fact that even the judges of the Man Booker Prize are talking about rewarding books with a narrative that zips along. The tension between what readers want and what writers produce has always been an important factor in the evolution of the novel and it should be fascinating to observe what happens as we shift from the Gutenberg mind to the digital mind.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje (1976)

Buddy Bolden is standing second from the left.

Charles Joseph Bolden (Buddy Bolden) is credited as being a principal originator of jazz, a new form of music that emerged in the dying years of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Bolden and his band played ragtime, added some blues and gospel elements and most importantly improvisation, which lies at the heart of jazz. This kind of historical knowledge about the origins of jazz, in particular narrowing it down to one man, is like finding the source of a great river that begins as a trickle before winding down the slopes of great mountains, through crazy rapids and into massive cataracts of water before spilling into a sea of infinite possibilities. Jazz truly is something wild and, even now, untamed; drawn deep from the inner creative soul of humankind. Ondaatje’s portrayal of Buddy Bolden and his milieu is like the above grainy black and white photo come to life and examined from multiple viewpoints.

Coming Through Slaughter is structured like jazz, with a narrative arc that is fragmented into vignettes that continually lead back to the main narrative motif. That motif is the life of of Buddy Bolden and his sudden disappearance. Bolden abandons both his life in New Orleans and his band apparently due to the onset of schizophrenia that eventually led to his incarceration in an old civil war asylum near the town of Slaughter in 1907, where he finally died aged 54 in 1931. Not a great deal is known about the life of Bolden accept a few fairly concrete facts coupled with a great deal of myth and conjecture. There aren’t even any recordings of Bolden and his band in existence, although there are rumors of recordings on cylinders that weren’t made for general consumption and ended up in the hands of collectors, although none have ever surfaced. Much of what occurs in the novel is therefore either exaggerated or fictionalized, however this benefits Ondaatje and allows Bolden and New Orleans to really come alive.

What Ondaatje offers is historical conjecture filtered through experiments with narrative form, such as switching without warning from a third person omniscient point of view to the first person point of view Bolden himself. Text from interviews (probably not real) and descriptions of films are some of the other forms used. To Ondaatje’s credit this narrative blend works well to give a fascinating take on Bolden and the birth of jazz. Central to the novel is the only surviving photograph of Bolden, along with his band, taken by E.J. Bellocq, the photographer known for his images of prostitutes (he’s portrayed here as a hydrocephalic). There’s an inferred connection between Bolden and Bellocq that seems to suggest that artistic brilliance is the domain of those who suffer, a tragic subtext that gives the novel emotional frisson.

Despite the brevity of Coming Through Slaughter and its unorthodox structure, it’s an absorbing read. The novel is regarded as one of the best jazz novels (is that a genre?) and jazz aficionados should certainly give it a read. I can’t help but feel that Bolden is too good to be true, a wild blower of the cornet, pioneer of the kind of inspirational improvisation that would establish jazz as one the great musical genres and sufferer of a mental illness that would be both his undoing and perhaps also his source of inspiration. If Bolden didn’t really exist then someone would have to make him up, and in a way that’s exactly what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Thursday 18 June 2015

The First Bad Man - Miranda July (2015)

Miranda July is a renaissance woman who’s career has encompassed film, music, performance art, directing, acting and writing. I first encountered Miranda July via her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which turned out to be a brilliant encapsulation of what July is all about. Her style is self consciously arty and kooky and explores psychological themes such as neurotic behavior and social awkwardness whilst also flirting with existentialism. July manages to successfully skirt the fine line between pretension and authentic emotional connection and when she is on the money this approach works extremely well, but when she isn’t there can be a strong whiff of mawkishness. Although July’s work is somewhat of an acquired taste, The First Bad Man mostly hits the mark nicely.

The First Bad Man’s
principle protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a typical July character; Cheryl is plain, awkward, neurotic and has a decidedly kooky outlook on life. Initially both the character of Cheryl and July’s writing grates with neurotic self-consciousness, but fortunately before long Cheryl becomes endearing and at the same time the novel begins to venture down some untrodden narrative pathways. The First Bad Man contains the only portrayal of a female misogynist that I’m aware of, although I’m sure there’s more out there in the wild world of literature. Cheryl’s unwanted house-guest, a young woman called Clee, is the instigator of one of the most unusual and ultimately affecting relationships I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Clee is young, beautiful and buxom, but has unbearable foot odor, questionable personal habits and behaves in an unreasonably aggressive manner toward Cheryl. However as the novel progresses Clee transforms Cheryl’s life in unexpectedly positive ways.

The First Bad Man evoked a wide range of emotional responses; at times I was frustrated at Cheryl’s inability to engage with life in a functional manner, yet I was also appalled at the treatment meted out by Clee. I ended up being entirely caught up in Cheryl’s life and found myself desperately hoping that everything would work out for her. Having seen her films I couldn’t help but picture July as Cheryl throughout the narrative, but fortunately this worked for me. July clearly has a knack of exploring the more extreme elements of human psychology whilst also making the character sympathetic. Without this the novel could have very easily been an exercise in neurotic irritation, but instead it becomes an ultimately heartwarming story. Also I’m sucker for a novel with a reference to David Bowie; in this case his song ‘Kooks’ is used as a mental tool for stopping obsessive behavior.

As with July’s films, The First Bad Man is not for everyone, in fact many readers may not be able to stomach her unique take on human psychology and her idiosyncratic writing style. Personally by the end of the novel I wasn’t ready to let go of Cheryl Glickman; I’d become as attached to her as she was to Kubelko Bondy, and that’s really saying something. Who’s Kubelko Bondy? You’ll have to read the novel to find out, and besides, Cheryl would love you to join her in her lover’s story, you won’t be sorry....

Miranda July, looking suitably kooky

Sunday 31 May 2015

The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1992)

The Secret History is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it (I blame myself naturally). Curiously during the last twenty three years I’ve had a strange kind of shadow relationship with the novel; periodically I’d see a reference to it, or spot it in amongst a friend’s collection of books. Once I found a copy in the back yard of a house I was looking to rent, soggy from the rain that had passed overhead that day (it was unreadable of course). I’d overhear people talking about it in a cafe or I’d see a random picture of Tartt, a mysterious literary figure with her own striking sartorial style. In my mind an aura of mysterious allure surrounded both the book and the author and I knew that I would actually read it one day. Finally, having now read the novel, I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint.

In hindsight I realize that in being inexorably drawn to The Secret History I had something in common with narrator Richard Papen, who couldn’t resist the singular pull of the charismatic and exclusive coterie of Greek classics students taught by the enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. The alluring yet morally ambiguous world of the coldly intellectual Henry Winter, the debonair Francis Abernathy, the aloof twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay and the larger than life Bunny Corcoran was hard to resist. Tartt handles this ensemble of twenty-something students deftly and despite their arrogant elitism and murdering ways you really hope they literally get away with murder. This is undoubtedly authorial manipulation at its highest level.

As I was reading The Secret History I kept on marveling at just how a novel that reveals who is murdered and by whom right at the beginning can be so compelling. Of course there is the enticement of wanting to know why and how these characters were driven to murder, but ultimately it is novel’s tightly wound narrative tension and Tartt's coolly elegant prose that creates such a compelling novel. Tartt’s style is self consciously literary, yet she doesn’t overdo it, even though she regularly spreads baubles of linguistic beauty throughout the narrative. Tartt’s writing is so disciplined that she is able to make even the most mundane aspects of the narrative totally absorbing.

The characters are psychologically fascinating and the knowledge that there are mysteriously nefarious events going on in the background that will eventually be revealed creates exquisite tension. The novel is set in Vermont in the north east of America, providing an appropriately somber yet lush atmosphere of ornate campus buildings and autumnal forests for the plot’s tragic trajectory to play out in. Also impressive is Tartt’s ability to depict a realistic male narrator. Richard Papen’s psychological foibles are entirely convincing; his relationships with women, his insecurities and how he approaches life are all relatable to the reader, something that also applies to all of the characters, despite their individual eccentricities.

Reading The Secret History is like being seduced by someone who is extremely erudite, intelligent, mysterious and beautiful. It’s extremely addictive and wholly satisfying. I could barely put this book down, I read it on the train, late at night at home and on a camping trip; thinking about it obsessively as I climbed the peaks of the Stirling Ranges in the Australian autumn. It took ten years after the publication of The Secret History for Tartt’s next novel to emerge (The Little Friend - 2002) and then another eleven years for the Pulitzer prize winner The Goldfinch (2013). Fortunately I’m yet to read either of these novels. All that’s left to say at this point is that I’m grateful I’m not having to wait another ten years to read another Donna Tartt novel.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Solar Lottery - Philip K. Dick (1955)

The debut novel of any significant author is always a fascinating prospect, particularly after most of their later works have already been read. Solar Lottery reveals that Philip K. Dick arrived nearly fully formed, with many of his typical obsessive thematic threads featuring strongly.  Although Solar Lottery is certainly flawed and is not up there amongst his finest works, it still stands out due to Dick’s unique vision and writing style. When you read a Philip K. Dick novel you know that you are in for a weird time and Solar Lottery does not disappoint.

Solar Lottery is set hundreds of years in the future and humanity has colonized much of the solar system. This future solar civilization is ruled by a person selected at random by a computer generated lottery to hold the title of Quizmaster. Although governed by the Quizmaster, society is dominated by powerful corporations and most humans survive by pledging allegiance to both corporations and individuals. Ted Benteley, a typical Dick everyman, is dismissed from a corporation he hates, allowing him to attempt to work for the current Quizmaster - Reese Verrick. He succeeds only to learn that Verrick has been usurped by Leon Cartwright. Cartwright is also the leader of a society that follows the theories of John Preston, who’s life’s work focused on finding the legendary outer planet known as Flame Disc. Dick’s typically paranoid and cynical version of future humanity also involves sanctioned assassination attempts on the new Quizmaster and the unfortunate Benteley becomes embroiled in Verrick’s attempt to assassinate Cartwright. The novel’s convoluted plot is a bit creaky in places, but Dick ultimately manages to pull off what seems like two short stories melded into one narrative.

Solar Lottery features many of the tropes that would feature heavily in Philip K. Dick novels to come. Flying cars feature briefly, (but they don’t give unsolicited advice...), there’s controlling corporations, altered consciousness, telepaths, an android and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Typically for a Philip K. Dick novel there is a lot going on for what’s only a short novel and at times the narrative pace is frantic. At this early stage Dick’s writing style features abrupt segues and some pretty unnatural dialogue, however inadvertently these stylistic flaws create a hyper-real tone to the narrative that’s in keeping with Dick’s obsession with replicated or altered reality. The novel does have a pulpy tone, but Dick’s ideas are, as usual, intriguing and weird; exploring deeper themes than the average action oriented pulp novel from that era. I wonder how readers would have reacted to this novel back in 1955?

Although future novels would be superior both stylistically and thematically, Solar Lottery is well worth reading for any Dick-head. Dick would go on to craft an extraordinary body of work that would prove to be both prescient and highly influential. Dick was a unique voice and it’s such a pity that his lifestyle choices (including over a decade of abuse of legally sourced amphetamines) led to an early demise in 1982. In keeping with Dick’s vision, perhaps one day we’ll have a replicant Philip K. Dick AI churning out new novels for our amazement. Now that’s something I’d like to see.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (2013)

Richard Flanagan, deserving winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, was inspired by his father’s experiences as a WWII POW on the Thailand - Burma death railway to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It took Flanagan twelve years and a multitude of drafts to complete. Flanagan’s father passed away on the very day it was finished, as if finally released from the burden of history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North deserves to become a modern classic both for its unflinching depiction of humanity at war and for the quality of Flanagan’s prose.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is divided into sections featuring short chapters that move through various time periods before and after the war, most featuring the novel’s principal protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. In contrast the middle section is dominated by a depiction of the horror of the death railway across two days; it is both unrelentingly bleak and emotionally draining. Flanagan’s writing is subtle but powerful, creating a profound sense of being right there with the POWs in the steaming disease ridden jungle suffering from the cruelty of both the guards and the work itself. This is by far the most visceral depiction of the horrors of war I have ever read. The reality of the death railway is both surreal and medieval in its varied cruelties and appropriately at one point Dorrigo alludes to the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno (1317) when referring to the ulcer ward.

Flanagan’s decision to utilize a linear narrative for most of the death railway section allows it to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. To be faced with chapter after chapter of the horrors of ‘the line’ and ‘the speedo’ makes for an extremely challenging read. This is leavened somewhat by a multitude of superbly written scenes throughout the novel; from a young Dorrigo marking a football in the playground, to his fellow POW survivors drunkenly smashing into a Hobart fish and chip shop to free the fish ‘imprisoned’ in the fish tank to honor their fallen comrade Darky Gardiner. Generally Flanagan’s depiction of character psychology is mostly inspired, but at times he overdoes it, extending paragraphs detailing a character’s mental and emotional states to almost unbearable lengths. This tendency to be slightly long-winded is perhaps the novel’s only flaw, although it is easily overlooked when considering the overall brilliance of the novel.

Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and former commanding officer, now in his seventies, leaves a scene of infidelity, forgetting his book of Japanese death poems. Significantly the Japanese commanders at the POW camp discuss their love of Japanese literature, most notably Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), an account of his epically dangerous journey by foot into the interior of Japan. Basho writes that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Although ostensibly Flanagan’s novel is about war and its affect on those involved, the reference to Basho reveals deeper meanings; perhaps obviously as a metaphor for the POWs dangerous journey through the jungle building the railway, but more philosophically as an analogy for each individual’s journey through life. The novel traces many lives, including, in one of the novel’s masterstrokes, the Japanese officers in the decades after the war. It also serves as a reminder that literature, as an expression of humanity, both illuminates and obfuscates the ‘truth’ and that the ‘truth’ is more often than not subjective at best.

Although The Narrow Road to the Deep North was selected to read for the Subiaco Library book club in January, the meeting coincidentally fell in the week leading up to ANZAC day. I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day; it is undoubtedly important to remember those who went to war, but there is also the tendency for nationalism and subtle glorification to creep into our remembrances. Fortunately Flanagan’s novel does not view the past in black and white terms, rather it reminds us that humanity is flawed and war is an extreme expression of our folly. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is so thematically rich and profoundly humane it should become mandatory reading not just in Australia, but throughout the world.

Monday 13 April 2015

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem (2010)

After I finished reading Chronic City I searched for some information about Jonathan Lethem and discovered that during his childhood he read Philip K. Dick’s entire oeuvre. This came as no surprise because Chronic City seems designed to make people who are already suspicious about the nature of reality even more nervous. The novel is set in what seems to be contemporary New York, however there is a gigantic escaped tiger roaming the streets, a permanent fog enshrouding the business district and newspapers that run war free editions. There is a lot going on in Chronic City, yet curiously also not that much at all. I’m still trying to decide whether the novel is a parody of western culture, a tribute to Philip K. Dick or a serious meditation about the nature of reality, or perhaps all three.

The aptly named Chase Insteadman is the narrator and principle protagonist. Insteadman is a former child star who drifts from day to day, surviving on royalty residuals and voice acting work, whilst his girlfriend is trapped on a space station because the Chinese have placed mines in a lower orbit. Enter Perkus Tooth, an eccentric former music critic who constantly smokes strong weed whilst ruminating over hidden meanings in the numerous popular (and not so popular) cultural artefacts that litter his rent controlled apartment. Chronic City is dialogue heavy and meanders along, dropping conceptual plot hints in-between joint hits that act to both confuse and illuminate; so much so that a significant amount of the first half of the book is taken up with very stoned character interactions, principally between an unruly and paranoid Tooth and the naive fresh faced Insteadman. The narrative waters are further muddied by cynical ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and beardo Richard Abneg, who also happens to work for the mayor of New York. As the novel progresses there is a nagging feeling that something significant is going on in the background, particularly when the principal characters become obsessed with Chaldrons (sic), that exist both in the ‘real’ world of the narrative and in an online simulated realm called Yet Another World.

Lethem plays around obsessively with the notion of layered realities throughout the novel, he just can’t leave it alone. There are references to people who are real, such as Lou Reed and David Byrne, but many more who are fictional, or at least variations on known entities. A band called Chthonic Youth (Sonic Youth, no doubt) is name-checked at one point and I’m sure that the “congenital sidekick” singer/actor Russ Grinspoon that Insteadman and Tooth meet at the mayor’s celebratory dinner is an alternate Art Garfunkel (one who likes to smoke big joints, of course...). Significantly Insteadman buys a book, once owned by Tooth, called Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, which is then thrown into a bottomless conceptual art hole on the outskirts of New York; a literary jape that would not be out of place in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

Chronic City is a clever and enjoyable novel, but is diminished by its unwieldy bulk and tendency to be too long-winded. Insteadman, Abneg and in particular Tooth are engaging characters and there is a lot of fun to be had amongst their labyrinthian stoned conversations, if you appreciate that sort of thing; but anyone who is familiar with science fiction tropes as utilized by the likes of, you guessed it, Philip K. Dick will find little to surprise them here. The novel teases and intrigues but unfortunately the plot reveals at the end are rendered mostly ineffectual because they are merely further variations on an all too familiar theme. Despite these flaws I intend to further explore Letham’s work, as long as I don’t fall into one of those conceptual art holes along the way whilst reading Obstinate Dust, whoops...I mean Infinite Jest.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Reading, Writing and the Value of Libraries

The promise of books to come...

A few days ago I noticed that I’d made my hundredth post with my review of Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. When I started this blog way back in September of 2011 my motivation was to get myself into the habit of writing to help me pursue my aim of writing fiction. So far the experiment has worked beautifully and not only has my discipline improved but also so has my writing. During that time I’ve read and reviewed 74 books and written who knows how many words. I’d have to say that the best book I’ve read during this time is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - it’s a crazy masterpiece. If I can produce anything half as good then I’ll be well pleased.

Lately I've been buying books perhaps a bit too regularly (from brick and mortar book stores, not those unspeakable online 'shops'), so they've been piling up and it has reminded me just how pleasing and comforting it is to have them around. It is not just for their ascetic appeal either; it's also the promise of what they hold. For as long as I can remember books have been present in my life. It's no accident that I work in a library. Every day I'm surrounded by books at work and at home. Where did this appreciation for books and the written word come from? Two places I believe. When I was growing up there was the influence of my older brothers, who always seemed to be reading and therefore gave me the impression that books were important and were a noble pursuit. The second and most important reason is because of the existence of libraries.

I grew up in a large country town in Western Australia's south west and because of the library situated in the town centre my parents were able to bring home seemingly limitless amounts of books. They weren't readers themselves, but were smart enough to recognize the importance of reading for a young person. They were not wealthy, so if it wasn't for the library I would not have had as much access to books. Studies have indicated that access to books in the home leads to greater rates of literacy for children, even if the books are not read all that often. Libraries allow parents and children access to books regardless of their economic circumstances. This is just one of a multitude of important services that libraries provide (don’t get me started!).

Here in Western Australia the conservative state government has been cutting funds to the library system, so much so that there is a strong possibility that important services offered by country libraries may be seriously affected. At the time of writing it is unclear what the outcome will be. About eight years ago the same state government announced that it was cutting funding to metropolitan libraries. The backlash from the public was so significant that before we even received pamphlets and car bumper stickers at my library to help counter this measure the government back flipped and the cuts were cancelled. Libraries in other countries have not been so fortunate. In the U.K during the post sub-prime economic slowdown many libraries were closed. Some were reopened by volunteers and squatters who could not tolerate the loss of such an important public resource.

Personally I regard the closure of libraries to be a sign of civilization in decline. Access to knowledge, regardless of economic circumstance, is fundamental. Having a highly literate society should be the aim of every government. As I sit and contemplate just what I will read next I feel grateful that I grew up in a society that valued literacy and that the adventure and value of literature and knowledge was instilled within me at an early age. Where-ever you may be in the world take a moment to think about the health of your library system. The value of libraries is immeasurable and it is paramount that this is not forgotten. Don’t let them fall by the wayside in this age of economic rationalism; they are simply too important to disappear.

Friday 13 March 2015

The Snow Kimono - Mark Henshaw (2014)

Until the publication of The Snow Kimono Mark Henshaw was one of those writers who had produced a brilliant debut novel and then had disappeared, well, almost. In 1988 Out of the Line of Fire received rave reviews, sold well and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Apart from co-writing two crime novels under a pseudonym in 1997 and 2007 Henshaw all but disappeared off the literary map. Now freshly retired from his job as curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw has written a novel that continues Out of the Line of Fire’s experiments with meta-fiction and examines the very nature of storytelling itself.

The Snow Kimono begins in Paris with protagonist Auguste Jovert, a retired police inspector whose past is catching up with him via a letter from a lost Algerian daughter. Enter Tadashi Omura, a Japanese neighbor who befriends Jovert and shares stories from his past about his problematic friendship with narcissistic writer Katsuo Ikeda. The narrative consists of stories within stories, exploring themes such as the nature of perception, ‘truth’ and identity. At one point I wondered whether I was in fact reading a transcript from one of Ikeda’s novels and in hindsight I’m still not exactly sure. Metafictional clues are offered when Jovert pores over maps of Algiers, trying to make sense of the complex street-scape of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and blind alleys. There’s also a section in which Omura’s father’s obsession with Japanese jigsaw puzzles is featured, which is essentially both an analogy for The Snow Kimono itself and a means to explore the themes of perception and subjectivity. 

The Snow Kimono is complex but beautifully written, with a spare and poetic style that is very Japanese, despite Henshaw being Australian born. The sections set in Japan are particularly resonant, with descriptions of nature that acts as a metaphor for a character’s state of being. There is often a profound sense of foreboding, that all is not as it seems; which is compounded by events and outcomes that are often only hinted at. Henshaw’s obtuse way with narrative does have its drawbacks however; although initially absorbing, the novel’s fragmented narrative resulted in a degree of alienation from the characters and a nagging frustration from trying to put all the pieces together. Whilst Henshaw adroitly resolves many of the mysteries at the heart of the novel, he also casts doubt on aspects of the narrative that were thought to be already understood. The result is that The Snow Kimono is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed; although I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve read too many self aware fragmented novels and I’m in need of the simple joys of a linear plot.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Axiomatic - Greg Egan (1995)

Greg Egan is a highly regarded writer of science fiction and somewhat of a mystery man. Despite publishing his first work in 1983 he has remained totally anonymous; never attending science fiction conventions or writer’s festivals and nor are there any verified pictures of him on the web. As a fellow Perth denizen I could have passed him on the street for all I know and perhaps I have. Axiomatic is a collection of short stories published between 1989 and 1992. Egan deals with hard science fiction and if these stories are anything to go by he shares something with cyberpunk, with most stories set in the near future and featuring themes that explore the nature of consciousness, biotechnology, technology and its psychological impact and less typically, temporal anomalies.

Axiomatic features some brilliant ideas that are extremely well executed. The first story, The Infinite Assassin, is pure cyberpunk; featuring an agent tracking  down people who take drugs that allows them to move between parallel worlds. It’s a dynamic way to begin a collection of stories and effectively draws the reader in immediately. Many of the stories give the impression that Egan came up with a great idea and then considered what would happen if that idea was allowed to occur in a certain situation. What would happen if the beginnings of ‘the big crunch’ were detected via a time reversed blue shifted galaxy?; well you’d harness it to examine the future and humanity could see exactly what was coming. This is explored in The Hundred Light Year Galaxy, but as always things are not quite what they seem. What would happen if there were axiomatic implants that could convincingly change your perception? Egan explores this possibility brilliantly in both The Walk and in the tense title story.

Perhaps the most fascinating and intellectually stimulating stories are the two involving the Ndoli device, a ‘jewel’ embedded in the human brain that allows conscious immortality when an individual ‘switches’; in other words have their brain scooped out and replaced with a mock brain that is merely an unthinking vessel for a device that will endure for a billion years. Learning to Be Me explores how a sensitive individual copes with the ramifications of doing such a thing. Egan takes this further in Closer, in which the protagonist’s obsession with knowing the unknowable subjective experience of others inspires extreme experiments with shared consciousness.

This is a superb collection of science fiction stories. A few are the kind that you only fully understand a week later whilst having a shower or laying on the couch listening to Fripp and Eno. As a fellow Perthite it was great to read stories with a recognizable Perth environment; whilst there are no specific Perth settings Egan conveys the feel of the place in many of these stories beautifully. I’m a late-comer to Egan, so it is probably a moot point to recommend him thoroughly, but maybe I’m not the only late one.

Monday 16 February 2015

The Children Act - Ian McEwan (2014)

So I’ve finally read my first Ian McEwan novel. Where have I been all these years? McEwan has only been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning it once for Amsterdam in 1998, amongst a whole plethora of other awards. McEwan was also named as one of the fifty greatest writers since 1945 by The Times. All these nominations and accolades are all very well, but it doesn’t mean much to me actually. My interest has to be piqued in sometimes curious ways for me to approach a writer with enthusiasm. In this case the book cub I run at the library has forced my hand and The Children Act ended up sharing the train journey to and from work with me. Actually it was good company; Ian McEwan is an excellent writer.

The Children Act features a brilliant opening scene in which high court judge Fiona Maye sits surround by her court papers, nursing a drink and being outraged by her aging husband who is appealing for the right to have an affair. The remainder of the novel more than lives up to this initial scene, with McEwan perfectly encapsulating the dilemma of a dysfunctional personal life interfering with professional responsibilities, in this case the complex case of a seventeen year old Jehovah Witness needing a life saving blood transfusion. The Children Act is compelling reading due to McEwan’s deft handling of character psychology and the collision between religion and secularism. Fiona Maye is a finely drawn character and the reader is totally drawn into her world across the duration of this short novel. McEwan gets everything just right with almost cold precision; his writing style is brilliantly tight and sparse. Nothing is wasted, although some readers may find the legal aspects of the narrative a bit dry, however the legal details serve to highlight the contrast between Maye’s hermetic legal world and the psychological challenge of making a sound judgement.

Although I finished reading The Children Act three weeks ago the power of the emotive penultimate scenes are still with me. McEwan’s descriptive skills are such that I can still picture the interior of Maye’s apartment and his depiction of London in winter. Such staying power is always the hallmark of a quality novel. The Children Act has made me an instant McEwan fan. It’s almost made up for the pain of the infamous Finkler Question.....

Thursday 29 January 2015

In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin (1977)

I read In Patagonia because it features in 501 Must Read Books (2007) as an example of great travel writing. I found a copy sitting on top of a pile of donated books to the library; it was not accepted into the collection due to its poor condition and in fact it degraded badly as I handled it, the brittle cover breaking off and pages falling out whilst I was trying to read it on a crowded work-bound train. I was primed to enjoy In Patagonia, but unfortunately it was not to be and often I found the people on the train and the view racing by more entertaining.

In Patagonia is not your typical travel writing; its structure is fragmented and a significant portion of the text concentrates on past events in Patagonia, rather than Chatwin’s own ‘adventures’. For example Chatwin traces the movements of Butch Cassidy and his gang, who fled to Patagonia in the early 1900‘s to avoid the authorities. The book is filled with the lives and histories of significant people who spent time in the region and ordinary immigrants who hoped to to make their riches with the wool trade. Chatwin’s writing is elegant but quite formal and I felt like there was something missing as the book progressed, perhaps a sense of adventure or danger, instead there are more potted histories and land owners complaining about the government. Chatwin does succeed in giving a strong impression of Patagonia’s landscape, which seems mysterious and breathtaking; a land of half mythical prehistoric creatures and mountainous terrain.

I mostly enjoyed the first half, however In Patagonia’s limited charm began to wear thin and the mini history lessons and formal style became almost intolerable. It’s not often I consider giving up on a book, but I came very close with what is meant to be a classic of travel writing. In amongst the historical anecdotes the closest Chatwin came to adventure was walking a mostly disused trail through a mountainous region. He ends up thinking he is lost as darkness approaches, only to hear cars nearby. Relieved he promptly camps for the night and is safe and sound the next morning - exciting stuff! If travel writing is meant to make you long to wander the world’s lost byways, then In Patagonia fails miserably. Far better is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliant The Shadow of the Sun (1998), detailing his travels through Africa. Kapuscinski’s writing conveys tension and verve that Chatwin doesn’t come close to emulating. This particular copy of In Patagonia days are numbered and it will end up in the recycling bin; a nice metaphor perhaps?

Monday 19 January 2015

Something Quite Peculiar - Steve Kilbey (2014)

Steve Kilbey hams it up at his book launch in Fremantle with yours truly, finger-food not pictured.

I’ve read a few music autobiographies over the years; Keith Richards’ Life (2010), and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (2004) come to mind, but the gold standard in this genre has to be Julian Cope’s Head On (1994), in which Cope’s rather eccentric and intense personality created a wildly hilarious ride into the outer realms of rock stardom. Appropriately The Church’s Steve Kilbey is name-checked in Cope’s book, appearing back stage during The Teardrop Explodes Australian tour to offer Cope a solitary magic mushroom, causing the initially skeptical Cope to “levitate above the audience”. This anecdotal link between Cope and Kilbey is significant because both share a predilection toward exploring the frontiers of psychedelic music, and now Kilbey has joined Cope in the ranks of rock stars who have given voice to their own stories.

Just what is the allure of reading about rock musicians lives? Is it because they appear so god-like in the fan’s mind? They can be so readily placed onto pedestals by the impact of their music, powerful multimedia and apocryphal myths that circulate endlessly. Rock star autobiographies offer a glimpse at the human aspect behind the god-like archetype; it’s like being able to find out what was going through Apollo’s (the god of music and the arts, appropriately) mind during his pursuit of Daphne. An interesting idea perhaps, but also a nice segue to Something Quite Peculiar, in which we learn that at a young age Kilbey became obsessed with Greek mythology. Kilbey fortunately begins Something Quite Peculiar with his childhood, even though Greg Dulli bluntly advised Kilbey not to “...write about your fucking childhood, no one want to read that!” Just as well such sage advice was ignored because it is both refreshing and relatable to read about an Australian childhood. It’s also fascinating to learn what influences were brought to bear on the young Kilbey. There’s his music loving father, but also the rough and tumble world of Australian rules football umpiring (who’d have guessed!), school bullies, tragic teenage love and, of course, music.

All through Something Quite Peculiar music is the strand that holds everything together. The young Kilbey loved The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of course, but also intriguingly Chicago, Leon Russell and Jo Cocker. Then later came 70‘s greats such as T.Rex, Bowie and Brian Eno. Essentially a book about Kilbey is also a book about The Church. As a teenager in the 1980’s The Church played exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. The band seemed so fully formed and perfect that it never even occurred to me to wonder about how it all happened. Fittingly the sequence of events that led to The Church’s formation reads like serendipity in action. When Kilbey’s Canberra band, Baby Grande, has to share a double-booked rehearsal space Kilbey meets brilliant guitarist Peter Koppes. When playing as a three piece Marty Wilson Piper comes back stage after a gig and Kilbey asks him to join the band before even establishing if he plays an instrument! Kilbey’s intuition was correct and Wilson-Piper became the perfect second guitarist for The Church. After ridding themselves of bullying drummer Nick Ward they let a smart-ass teenager with no drum kit calling himself President Camembert try out for the band. Any band that wants to come close to greatness needs an amazing drummer and the one and only Richard Ploog definitely had that special spark (plus the best surname for a drummer ever.)

For Church/Kilbey fans Something Quite Peculiar makes for addictive reading. There’s a plethora of great anecdotes and observations, tales of band ructions and the frustration of dealing with the unforgiving music industry (Capitol Records were “...fuck-knuckles to a man” apparently). Kilbey writes like a songwriter, with an emphasis on pacing and structure. There’s even the literary equivalent of a middle eight, with a prose poem detailing his experiences touring with The Church in Europe right in the middle of the book. The second half speeds up (life speeds up, don’t you know...) to match the weird intense energy of being in a band that’s making it, being on the road endlessly and dealing with intensely obsessed fans. The chapter about the making of Starfish in L.A. is a cracker, with Kilbey’s wit and humour coming to the fore. Kilbey perfectly conveys how you can be fulfilling your dream whilst at the same time having to deal with the terrible bullshit that comes with it.

The Church’s initial history is a slow burn to significant international success, then followed by the inevitable comedown. Post Starfish makes for sobering reading, with members leaving (Koppes came back though) and Kilbey succumbing to heroin addiction; but typically there was also some great music made during this period as well. Something Quite Peculiar ends with Kilbey finally kicking the habit a decade later and then there is a ten year jump to The Church playing the Sydney Opera House in 2011. Some have been disappointed with the jump in time, but as all good artists know what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in (there are, however, some unanswered questions*) and does the reader really need to know everything anyway? In any case all you need to know is that Kilbey and The Church kept on going all through those years, making great music, playing fantastic live shows and proving to have more endurance than pretty much every Australian band that emerged in the 1980’s.

Something Quite Peculiar is essential reading both for Church fans who can’t get songs like Violet Town out of their heads (that’s me) and also for the more casual fan who might only be familiar with the Starfish era. As far as rock star autobiographies go it’s engaging, well written and funny as hell. If this book came out in the 1980’s then people would be calling Kilbey a ‘survivor’, something I’m sure he’d dislike. What you can say is that Kilbey, and The Church, are an example of great artistic tenacity to keep doing what you love irrespective of trends and opinion, and that is something to be admired.

Do the surviving members of INXS still want to beat up Kilbey?
Did Ploog get into catering post Church and is he still a situationist?
Does Tom Verlaine still get around in just socks?
What happened to the chewing gum?