Friday 30 December 2022

The Year in Reading: 2022


Although this blog is about the books I read, what can often happen is the things going on in your life can have a strong influence on what you end up reading. This year was eventful and life changing. I began it pretty much crippled by a right hip that needed replacing. I ended up having nine weeks off of work and had the surgery in May. This meant that I've read less book club books this year, which also meant I got around to reading some books I had been meaning to read for a while, such as The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002), which is my book of the year. I read Mars by 1980 by David Stubbs (2018) during this period as well, which meant that I had time to listen to the weird early electronic music referenced by the book. It really helped me get through the recovery period, as did reading Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (2020), which, for obvious reasons, was really appropriate. 

Donna Tartt - responsible for the read of the year

I'm pleased to have finally read some Philip Roth (Sabbath's Theater  - 1995), and the Alan Garner novel I'd been carrying around from move to move since 1980 (Red Shift - 1973). Some of these were fitted around and during two great holidays post hip replacement, including a cruise off the Kimberley coast, which was a life-changing experience. Weirdly this was were I finished reading Sabbath's Theater! Reading is also somewhere you can take solace, and it helped enormously during the aftermath of my mother's death at the end of October. Appropriately by the time that had happened I'd finished Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021), which thematically was mainly about her mother's death. Strangely even reading The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971) helped in this regard, perhaps because it was so irreverent. As usual I wished that I'd read more, but there was a lot going on. As always there's the worst book of the year, and that prize goes to Something to Hide by Elizabeth George (2022), which I could not even get half way through. By default it was also the worst book club book, the best being Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (2021), which featured the usual Franzen qualities we know and love. So, onto next year, onwards and upwards - ever upwards forever in fact!

Tuesday 27 December 2022

The Velvet Underground: New York Art - Edited by Johan Kugelberg (2009)


Rating: Excellent

I've again been making an effort to read my many large coffee table style books, as usual at a very gradual pace. The Velvet Underground are my all time favourite band for all kinds of reasons, some obvious and some for personal reasons of my own. Fittingly this book is made for fans such as I. It was deliberately put together as a quality coffee-table arthouse book focussing specifically on media that hadn't quite been captured by other publications and the various Velvet Underground box sets. It's a brilliant celebration of this unique and highly influential band. The main focus of the book is a multitude of incredible rare photos of the band throughout its history. It's worth owning just for that reason. There's also a large collection of posters and flyers advertising their live shows, a great portion of which I have never seen before. 

The book's text entails such curios as newspaper cuttings of reviews of some of the shows they did during the Andy Warhol era, including one great headline that reads: 'Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists.' There's an amazing short essay written by guitarist, the reticent Sterling Morrison (RIP), about the band's early days. Perhaps the best section of text is a long interview with Lou Reed and Doug Yule from 1970, in which they talk about such topics as recording Loaded (1970) and their opinions of other acts, such as the Beatles (they loved them) and Frank Zappa, whom they loathed (something that is well known, but to read the details of Lou's antipathy is fascinating). Among other highlights is Lester Bangs' long review of the Loaded album, which is entertainingly verbose. This is just a superb book. I'd recommend Velvet's fans to search out this book, but unfortunately it is now worth $600+ Australian dollars, which is a bit rich for even the most rabid fans. Hopefully it will be republished one day, meanwhile listen to their sublime albums, some of the greatest in the rock canon. 

Monday 19 December 2022

Red Shift - Alan Garner (1973)


Rating: Excellent

Alan Garner is a relative of my family on my mother's side, and when my mother and I travelled to England in 1980 when I was 11 we went to the area known as Alderley Edge in Cheshire, where Garner had grown up and had set many of his fantasy novels. Alderley Edge features a hilly wooded area (The Edge) which has ancient mystical traditions involving an army of knights who sleep under The Edge, guarded by a wizard. Consulting Wikipedia reveals that the carving of the face of a wizard over a well in The Edge, that I distinctly remember seeing, was carved by Garner's great great grandfather in the mid nineteenth century. Talk about getting your imagination going! I didn't meet Garner on that visit, perhaps because by that point relations were distant, but my mother bought me all of his books, including Red Shift. I read the others, including his first, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), but not Red Shift, which has been in my possession for forty two years! It had been too adult for me at the time. Supposedly a young adult novel, it in fact reads as a complex work of high modernism. Set in three time periods, the first during modern times (the 1960s I assume), Roman Britain and during the English Civil War (1642 - 1651). The narrative alternates between the three, often without much warning. All three time periods are set in the region around Alderley Edge, mostly to its south in Barthomley and a place called Mow Cop (I checked on Google Maps). The novel is thematically dense, almost to a gnomic degree, although at its heart is a love story. I deliberately did not look up any explanations of its plot and themes, but now that I have it does make much more sense. However I'm pleased that I read it without guidance, as I feel that it is a work that you need to interpret yourself.

Garner at home in 1967
Garner at home in 1967

Although Red Shift is wilfully opaque, it features some beautiful prose which, although simple at times, flows along at a pace of its own devising, including some dialogue-heavy passages that sometimes just consist of one word exchanges, particularly in the modern parts. In this regard the narrative is stripped back to its bare-bones in these sections, perhaps reflecting the character's difficulties in truly connecting? Despite this there's enough there in the narrative to latch onto. There's three different love stories, interconnected through place, but separated through time. A stone axe also seems to link the three stories, with it ending up being found by the modern day semi-estranged couple, Tom and Jan. This couple and their circumstances give the reader a narrative anchor from which the other two time-lines are better absorbed, as often it is hard to fathom what is going on during these parts of the novel. The colour red is a thematic link also, with the stone axe being coloured with red ochre (and blood, I assume), red painted faces appear during Roman Britain and Tom alludes to the red shift of galaxies as they recede ever away from our own galaxy. I assume that this is also a metaphor for his alienated mental and emotional state, particularly toward his parents and, to a lesser degree, Jan. Like many modernist texts, it's best to just flow with the narrative, allowing certain themes and plot devices to penetrate. It's a novel that would benefit from multiple readings. If you really want to know what is going on, the previously mentioned Wikipedia entry is long and informative. I'm amazed that Red Shift was marketed to young readers, but perhaps they were more sophisticated in the early 1970's? Overall it's a difficult, but strangely enjoyable novel, manifesting like a mysterious dream that you enjoy during the night, but can't make sense of the next day, and to me, that is a good thing. 

The Wizard at Alderley Edge


Tuesday 29 November 2022

The Dice Man - Luke Rhinehart (1971)


Rating: Excellent

The Dice Man is perhaps one of the most famous cult novels of all time. By the time I was a teenager in the 1980s I'd heard of it, even though I knew no one who had actually read it. Just hearing about the concept was enough to get the imagination going. Now that I've finally read the novel I realise just how influential it was. I detect its influence on writers such as Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, for example. Certainly the protagonist, also called Luke Rhinehart, reminds me of a toned down Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (1991). Although Rhinehart is not as an extreme a character as Bateman, he does appear to embody the disaffection and ennui at the heart of the middle-class professional in mid to late century America. The novel begins with Rhinehart despairing about his outwardly perfect life; with a wife, two children and a career as a notable psychiatrist (as was the author himself, geddit?). At this point the prose seems a touch self conscious and I was thinking that the novel was going to be an ordeal, however quite quickly, at the throw of a die, no less, it became fascinating, fun and outrageous. Rhinehart becomes a compelling character, one whom you want to follow down the 'liberating' path of putting the course of your life in the die's hands. The tone of the novel is one of revolutionary fervour, in keeping with the times it was written and published in, but it is also an irreverent ride into the sunset, not caring where it ends up.

The Dice Man is a touch dated, I can imagine that it would have been recommended by Playboy to its readers back in the day. One could argue that it is misogynous, as the female characters are usually willing to indulge sexually when Rhinehart is around, particularly when the roll of the die orders him to rape and pillage. It's certainly misanthropic, almost bitterly so at times. There's also increasing references to the 'The Book of the Die', as Rhinehart's notoriety increases and his adherents increase in number. The point the author is making about religion and cults appears obvious, that they are inherently absurd, as is human nature and existence it seems. Rhinehart doesn't hold back, but there's also plenty of humour, some of the funniest scenes are those that satirise psychiatrists and psychiatry itself. There's also some fantastic episodes involving mental patients that are disturbingly hilarious. The novel does become darker as it progresses and one wonders where it will end up. The answer is with two disturbing episodes and then a set-up for the sequel, which was a bit disappointing, but understandable. From what I've read Rhinehart diluted the impact of this novel with each sequel, but he's hardly the only one to fall into that trap. What fascinates me is that I've met several older people, some library patrons, who experimented with a die rolling lifestyle due to reading the novel, mostly with inconsequential results. I did hear about one instance in which a decision to engage in an affair due to the roll of a die blighted decades of a marriage. What a curious afterlife this novel has had. I recommend reading it not just because it is ultimetly a fine piece of writing, but also for its cultural significance.

Monday 21 November 2022

French Braid - Anne Tyler (2022)


Rating: Admirable

Anne Tyler has had a long and notable career as a novelist, and thanks to the library book club I've finally gotten around to reading her. It turns out that French Braid is a classic book club read, offering plenty to talk about, both due to her prose style and the treatment of the subject matter. The novel is, typical for Tyler, a family saga, but not your usual kind, as nothing majorly significant occurs, except a family, the Garretts, drifting apart due to ineffectual parenting and poor communication skills. Certain readers would find Tyler's style to be bland and too focussed on every-day details that are typical of life. For these reasons 'domestic fiction' is often critiqued quite savagely (like, for example, most Hilary Mantel novels before the Wolf Hall trilogy), however Tyler's approach is subtle and clever, with much more going on under the surface than you would think. The Garrett family seems very typical, but, as one example, Tyler uses the family to explore the inherent problems of being a man in an ever changing societal and cultural landscape. Robin Garret, the father, flounders along, even though he believes he's doing a fine job of being a father and a husband. His wife, Mercy Garrett, is a closet feminist, playing the role of wife and mother in a perfunctory manner, so much so that even her escape from the pressures of role-playing is a measured affair. Tyler also has an ability to defy narrative expectations. During a family vacation problems occur that in other novels would be dramatic and decisive plot devices, which would then feature throughout the rest of the narrative, but here the expected doesn't happen, which is pleasantly surprising.

There's no doubt that Tyler is a quality writer, one to admire, however her work is not for everyone. I enjoyed analysing her writing, but did not particularly enjoy reading the novel. It is slow and overly descriptive, despite its other qualities already mentioned. Characters are certainly sympathetic, but not particularly memorable, for me in any case. In an interview I read with Tyler she notes (to paraphrase) that readers go to Philip Roth for vinegar and piss, but read her books for cookies and tea; I have a strong tendency to agree with her observation. There's great merit in what Tyler does, but it just doesn't interest the likes of a reader such as myself, who enjoys some extremes in novels. Despite these observations I'm pleased to have read French Braid, it's a typical example of the book club making me read a book I never would have chosen myself. There's value in having your hand forced by a book club, it makes you into a far more well rounded reader and hones your critical abilities, that could become duller as a result of constantly reading books you know you'll enjoy. Also Tyler wrote The Accidental Tourist (1985), which was made into a great movie, to which I took a particular woman to see on a first date, which went well and helped to create some great relationship memories, some of which could easily become narrative fodder for one of Tyler's novels, just not the man floundering along bit....

Monday 24 October 2022

Crying in H Mart - Michelle Zauner (2021)


Rating: Admirable

Crying in H Mart has made quite an impact since it was published last year, spending almost a year on the New York Times best-seller list and earning rave reviews around the world. The memoir deals with Zauner's relationship with her mother, her wider family and her mother's early death from cancer. Such themes are universal and Zauner, a musician and writer, deals with them in a straight-forward and honest manner, which are two reasons why this book has struck a chord with so many readers. Such books are also important culturally, as they give a voice for difficult themes that most people encounter in their life-times; it's either a preparation, or a point of recognition. Zauner delves deeply into her difficult childhood, during which relations with her demanding mother were strained. Her mother's illness is portrayed as a chance for her to repair relations before it is too late, but it also explores what is like to be part of a 'mixed-race' family, trying to fit into a culture (America) that is not always at ease with multiculturalism. Such themes makes for good reading fodder for book clubs, and in this case opinions ranged from dislike, to indifference, but also to acknowledgement and appreciation. Such variation of opinions makes for an interesting discussion, particularly when there are some differences of opinion when it comes to the morality of memoirs; are they exploitative and are they simply ego indulgences of the author? The jury was out....

Zauner is a competent writer and throughout the memoir her writing is good enough, without being exceptional. When it comes to a bookclub read I've always considered that, with my interest levels being usually low with such books, a sure sign of an exceptional book is that it can make me both interested and make me want to pick-up the book to read whenever I possibly can. Sadly, however, Crying in H Mart did not pique my interest in this manner. Despite the poignant themes and the worthiness of the memoir, I just couldn't fully engage and I ended up speed-reading the second half of the book. This is never a good sign for any book, but even so I acknowledge that it wasn't wholly the fault of Zauner, I just think that it wasn't for me, in particular regarding the constant references to Korean cuisine, which is central to the memoir. Am I heartless, or not dedicated to other peoples' stories enough? Actually, I just think that too many other cultural pursuits are attracting my interest at the moment (Spiritual Jazz, The Sopranos and buying up all the amazing CDs no-one wants because they are supposedly dead). I have to admit, Crying in H Mart, I just wasn't that into you. 

Monday 3 October 2022

Sabbath's Theater - Philip Roth (1995)


Rating: Excellent

My first Roth novel, finally. It didn't disappoint either, although at times it was too much to handle. Excessive is a suitable adjective to describe Sabbath's Theater, a novel dominated by the grotesque, yet strangely sympathetic character of Micky Sabbath. Sabbath is a sixty-four year old ex-puppeteer, at the tail end of a life dedicated to sexual debauchery. This is an outrageously dirty novel, full of lusty sexual proclivities that often veer into taboo territory, or at the very least into the realm of perverse transgressions. It's heady stuff, not least because of Roth's intensely verbose and dense prose style. Obviously seasoned Roth readers would be familiar with his dark rococo narrative style which manages to be both digressive and startlingly direct at the same time, but for yours truly, a first time reader, it was overwhelming. At times I found the novel to be impenetrable, then intensely entertaining, and then boring and indulgent, sometimes within a few pages. Ultimately, however, I couldn't help but be drawn into Sabbath's self destructive raging against the dying light of what it is to be a lusty heterosexual man, although one who has a very dodgy moral compass.

At some point I wondered just why Roth would have created a character such as Sabbath. Then I realised that he represents the primal sexual urge inside every man, no matter how conservative or repressed he may be, an urge that is both monstrous, but perfectly natural in essence? Perhaps.... As with Charles Bukowski's work, I wonder how women feel about Sabbath's Theater? Or Roth's writing in general? Roth is just as funny as Bukowski. Humour in literary fiction is difficult to pull off effectively, but here Roth excels, so much so my partner would often ask me what I was laughing about (I would get her to read some of the lines, which didn't have the same effect on her, perhaps answering my above question, although she does appreciate Bukowski). There's some incredibly funny scenes, such as when Sabbath places bets on an AA patient's blood-pressure, or his perverse adventures at his former producers' apartment, revealing himself to he the ultimate bad guest. Although sometimes Roth was totally over the top stylistically I will certainly read some more of his novels, including the infamous Portnoy's Complaint (1969), which I have an original hardback edition knocking about the house.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee (2016)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book on a whim, mainly because I thought it was Chinese science fiction, but Lee is actually an American, however, despite my admittedly rather limited exposure to Chinese science fiction, Lee does display some stylistic similarities to some of the Chinese writers I've encountered. There's a certain formal tone to the writing, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The formal tone suits militaristic science fiction, with its array of exotic weapons (amputation guns and something sinister and powerful known as a Winnower, are two of many examples) and space battles, which can be difficult to get right, but Lee does well here. However it's not so good with character development, leaving many of the characters as two-dimensional actors in settings dominated by military technology and imperialist ideology. The two main protagonists, captain Kel Cheris and the 'undead' mad and traitorous Shuos Jedao, have some depth to them, particularly as their circumstances allow for some pretty dark psychological intensity, but all the other characters are one dimensional or impenetrable. The novel became less satisfying as it progressed. In fact I became indifferent throughout the last third and just wanted to finish so I could move onto another book, which is never a good sign.

Despite the novel's flaws the concepts found within Ninefox Gambit are intriguing. There's a struggle between a despotic space Empire called the Hexarchate and other groups that are under its control, who have a tendency to become 'heretics' and develop alternate ways of living. This is were it gets really interesting - civilisation, and objective reality itself, is maintained and altered by the development and establishment of calendrical mathematics. The Hexarchate is run by a strict calendar that all disparate parts of the empire must adhere to, otherwise reality itself can change in ways that undermine its function. It's a great concept and I also enjoyed the fact that Lee throws you in the deep end from the first page and it takes quite a while to work out what is going on. Ninefox Gambit is the first novel of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. The combination of Lee's ideas, space opera tropes and mathematic concepts make the novel and the trilogy an intriguing proposition, however because Lee's style left me cold it is likely that I will not read the other two novels, Raven Stratagem (2017) and Revenent Gun (2018). Other's may find Ninefox Gambit totally satisfying, so don't be necessarily put off by my reaction to Lee's writing. The novel won the Locus Award for best first novel and was shortlisted for the Nebula Award, so I may well be in the minority.

Monday 15 August 2022

Something to Hide - Elizabeth George (2022)


Rating: Mediocre

This is the first book I've had to read for the library's book club for quite a while. At over seven hundred pages long I'd hoped that it would be worth the effort, but it turned out that I could only last two hundred pages. It's rare for me to give up on books, particularly book club books, as I display a reasonable degree of dedication. However Something to Hide is the dad-bod* of novels - bloated, bland and with a curious self belief that it is better than it actually is. The novel is a police procedural, with a detective called Lynley on the case (although we do not encounter him until one hundred pages in). This is George's twenty-first Lynley novel, so obviously plenty of readers enjoy these books. The novel has a seriously important theme - the effort to stop female genital mutilation, however the narrative is so slow, the style so overly descriptive, and the characters display a level of blandness that is enough to irritate and not care, that such an important theme is rendered inert. I could go on, but I just can't be bothered. My lack of enthusiasm for this novel has bled over into this review, making it almost as bland. Read this novel only if you are already a fan of the series and, I guess, crime/police procedurals in general, although I'm certain there are better ones out there. 

* I used this description when talking about the book to a library casual, so I decided to use it, even though when written down it loses something along the way...

Sunday 24 July 2022

Rosewater - Tade Thompson (2016)


Rating: Excellent

Firstly, I can totally relate to Thompson, as it mentions on the small biographical blurb on the back cover that "...he battles an addiction to books." Secondly, Rosewater is an enticing proposition, a novel that explores typical science fiction tropes (alien invasion, future technologies), but subverts the norm by making Nigeria the central setting of the novel, with African characters as the main protagonists, removing the narrative from typical western settings. Thematically, the novel critiques colonialism and American isolationism, as well as the tendency for humans to remain divided, despite facing a common problem. I wasn't surprised when I learnt the Thompson is a trained psychiatrist, as his characterisations reveal a particular insight into the human condition, a good example being Kaaro, the main protagonist who displays both moral and amoral tendencies. Kaaro works as an agent for a shadowy government organisation called S45, who has hired Kaaro due to his exceptional abilities as a sensitive. The alien presence in Rosewater is an entity named Wormwood, which crash-landed initially in London, before burrowing through the Earth's crust to emerge in Nigeria. A bio-dome covers the entity and Rosewater is a shanty-town that has grown up around the site, mainly due to the fact that periodically the dome opens and releases spores that has the ability to heal humans. It is also responsible for the xenosphere, which enables sensitives to interact with each-other (like a biological internet) and influence other humans.

Thompson really has crammed a great deal into Rosewater, including horror elements, bio-punk, cyber-punk and Afro-futurism. His writing style is propulsive, consistently compelling and often makes abrupt changes of pace, which works more often than not. The amalgam of cross-genre elements makes for an intriguing blend and the Nigerian setting is refreshing in the same manner as the Asian settings in recent Chinese science fiction. The narrative is set between 2012 and 2066, and jumps back and forth between various times in past and the present (2066). This enables Thompson to explore Kaaro's origins, therefore fleshing out his character, and the story of Wormwood, which is totally intriguing. Kaaro's ability as a sensitive is explored via these time-jumps and this was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rosewater. The xenosphere is like a connective virtual reality that sensitives can slip into, assuming different guises and encountering exotic and nefarious entities. It's psychedelic, disturbing and dangerous, giving the novel a shot of extra frisson. I'm not surprised that Rosewater won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2019 and an award for African science fiction called The Nommo Award. Rosewater is the first part of a trilogy, the other two books were published in 2019 (as usual I'm late to the party) - Rosewater Insurrection and Rosewater Redemption. As it is now my policy to make sure I finish trilogies, I'll be tracking these novels down. I just spent a week in Melbourne, where I managed to find Thompson's latest novel, Far From the Light of Heaven (2021), but these two were nowhere to be seen. I'll have to hook up to the xenosphere to buy them...or nose around in a library.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland (2003)


Rating: Excellent

At the tail-end of my recovery from a hip replacement I felt that some hard-core history reading was in order, and in fact that is a good modern phrase to sum-up the Roman Republic - hard-core. Rubicon takes us from the foundation of Rome in 753 BCE to 14 ACE, and throughout the Roman Republic is revealed as an intense example of all of humanity's worst attributes; hubris, arrogance, cruelty, a whole litany of negative attributes basically, but it is not all bad, as Rome helped give Western culture a fine political and societal framework to improve upon. It's pointless here it try to go into Roman history, but what really stood out is just how similar the modern world is to that of Rome's, in particular the USA. Both feature ego-driven political figures bent on stamping their authority on the world, expecting to bask in the glory of success and have the populous love them for it. A Roman figure such as Pompey has a modern equivalent in Donald Trump (except the Pompey actually did some work, like subduing Asia Minor). In fact there were plenty of Trumps in the Roman world, whipping up mobs to intimidate political rivals and attempting to use the law to bend the republic to their will. Both civilisations feature political back-stabbing, military might, the use of the court of law for political ends, vast inequality, unchecked hubris and assassinations. Would we really expect much to change in just two and a half thousand years? It's long been a historical cliche, but essentially we are Romans, just with better technology with more checks and balances in place that give us some higher ground morally.

Pompey the Great, Rockstar General

As for the quality of the book itself? It's right up there with the best I've ever read in terms of history books. Holland delivers the story of the Republic in great detail, but with a verve that reflects the drama of such a dynamic and tumultuous civilisation. His writing is not overly academic, but is nowhere near being dumbed down for popular consumption, it's classy writing basically. Holland delves deeply into such matters as the Roman Senate, populated with the significant historical figures from that period, such as Cicero, Sulla (whom I was unfamiliar with) and Augustus Caesar, who led the way forward out of the Republic and into Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Aside from the Republic's political life, Holland does an excellent job at placing you in the heart of Rome, in its streets teeming with citizens and slaves, from the exalted individuals from noble families and the peasants living in squalor in the narrow market thoroughfares. One aspect that really stood out was the status of military generals, such as Pompey, who were tasked with taking out leaders from neighbouring regions before they could pose a threat to the Republic, if successful they were like rockstars or celebrities, treated on their return to Rome with parades and granted status and wealth. Despite this Holland reveals that whilst the Republic needed figures such as Pompey to build their empire, there existed inherent boundaries that kept such figures from becoming too powerful and endangering what was ultimately a democracy, until, that is, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy and swept all before him, beginning the end of the Roman Republic. Once again here lies historical echoes of present day America, caught in a fight between fascism and democracy on its own soil. What will future students of history be reading about our current time and will they be musing over historical parallels with the ancient world? Unfortunately it looks probable at the moment.

Monday 6 June 2022

Lives of The Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius - Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (2020)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book at the beginning of my three weeks off of work in April before I had my hip replacement. It caught my eye because I've always been interested in Stoicism and also I felt that a certain degree of stoicism got me through the one year wait I had to endure to have the surgery. There is, of course, much more to Stoicism than just being resilient and happy despite one's circumstances. There are ethical considerations, along with justice, virtue and the use of logic free of subjective bias. A principle aim of Stoicism is to be free of the baser elements of human emotion, such as envy, jealousy, anger and to work hard toward one's betterment and the betterment of others. The Lives of the Stoics doesn't exactly explain stoicism in such simple terms, rather it illustrates the tenets of Stoicism via the lives of its exponents in the ancient world. Stoicism began in Ancient Greece in the third century BCE when Zeno the Prophet arrived in Athens, poor and down on his luck after losing everything in a maritime Mediterranean storm. Zeno's story here is merely the beginning of Stoicism as a philosophical movement, which then unfolds chronologically over the course three hundred plus pages, many centuries and dozens of historical figures.

The early Stoics hailed from or ended up in Athens. Due to the historical era not that much is known about some of the early Stoics and some entries are either short and/or read as if there is a lot of supposition involved. Things eventually become a lot more interesting with the advent of the Roman Stoics. Greek Stoics, such as Antipater the Ethicist and Panaetius the Connector, would spend time in Rome during the second century BCE, influencing the Romans and leading to such famous Roman historical figures as Cicero, Cato, Seneca and finally, Marcus Aurelius, whom is famous for his written works entitled Meditations (161 - 180 ACE). These are fascinating historical figures and Holiday and Hanselman do quite a good job of relating their historical footprint through the prism of Stoicism. It's interesting and fascinating, but unfortunately not often compelling (but, should it be?). Fortunately due to the book's format the reader can read about one Stoic at a time, usually over about twenty pages or so (the book also features a handy map and a timeline). This is how I approached reading Lives of the Stoics and in-between I started to look more into the period of history each Stoic hailed from and in the end my interest in ancient history was rekindled and I started to read a book from my library discard stash on the Roman Republic (more about that later). Once I started reading Rubicon by Tom Holland (2003) along with Lives of the Stoics, it become a much more vibrant read. Although you have to work to pick out Stoic philosophy out of the stories of its practitioners, I do feel like I have a greater appreciation of Stoicism. To get the best out of this book I recommend my approach of reading it in conjunction with some wider research of both Stoicism and of the ancient historical era.

Monday 23 May 2022

Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music - David Stubbs (2018)


Rating: Excellent

Mars by 1980 has been my book to read as I've been recovering from a hip replacement, and it's been exactly the right choice (you get good at this as you get older...). It's fascinating and well written, but not too demanding when the ability to concentrate is compromised. I do know and love a reasonable amount of electronic music, but this book has filled in many gaps in an engaging and interesting manner. In the preface Stubbs admits that the book is not an exhaustive history of the genre, which is just as well as it would have to have been an encyclopaedia, such is the genre's lengthy history and ubiquitous twenty first century presence. The genre's history begins in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, with the invention of such machines as the pianola (1895), and then the exotically named Telharmonium (1906) and the Intonarumori (1910). Part one was perhaps the most fascinating for me, going from the above mentioned inventions through to the pre WWI Futurists and then onto avant-garde electronic composers such as Edgard Varese, Pierre Schaffer, Stockhausen and John Cage. It was rewarding to read about these innovators and at the same time listen to their compositions via You Tube, a recommended approach for anyone wanting to read this book. Although overall the book is a linear history, Stubbs does jump back and forth in time a bit, which is fine. Stubbs also offers a somewhat personal and subjective perspective, recounting his initial exposure to electronic musical works, which proves to be an effective and engaging approach throughout.

Perhaps the real strength of Mars by 1980 is the quality of Stubbs' writing, which is witty, erudite and perceptive. There are never lulls or boring sections to contend with and Stubbs' subjective opinions are never intrusive or excessive in tone. Stubbs evades any criticism of not even trying to be comprehensive by making what he does cover really count. He gives in depth attention to black musical artists who were trailblazers, such as Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, as well as female artists, such as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, who worked at the BBC in the 1960's. Derbyshire produced the Dr Who theme, which became one of the most famous electronic works within mainstream awareness for quite a while. Perhaps the most enjoyable chapters for me personally were 'The Art of the Duo' and 'Substance', both of which covered electronic music in the 1980's when I was a teenager. So, a nice glow of nostalgia for me as I contended with getting my new hip into gear. Stubbs also examines ambient music, 1990's rave culture, the dominance of sampling and then EDM (electronic dance music) in the twenty first century. Along the way he deftly examines the push and pull between black and white music and the associated question of authenticity, such as when white artists become funky by sampling the work of black artists (hello Moby). Mars by 1980 is much more than just a selective overview of electronic music, it also stands as an almost anthropological examination of twentieth century culture, which, in doing so, strongly gives the impression that the invention of machines that allowed humans to compose electronic music was a highly significant development in human artistic endeavour. Recommended for music lovers who are both curious and adventurous, and really, why not be both?

Monday 2 May 2022

The Little Friend - Donna Tartt (2002)


Rating: Sublime

The Little Friend is an incredible novel, but before I get into just why I need to point out that this does not mean that everyone will enjoy it. The novel disappointed some of Tartt's many fans after the sublime The Secret History (1992), which is one of those special novels that are revered with a cultish intensity. A hard act to follow then, and it doesn't help that The Little Friend is a world away from the university setting of Tartt's debut. Also Tartt takes her time to set the scene, establish the characters and engage in some world building; for example, after the prologue, nothing much happens for fifty plus pages. We are introduced to the Dufersnes family, some twelve years after the nine year old Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found dead, hanging from a tree in the front yard. Among the ensemble of characters, including three aunts, parents, friends, housekeepers and pets, we meet Harriet Cleve Dufresnes and learn that the trauma of her brother's death has resulted in a sad and dysfunctional household. Initially it really seems that the novel just consists of endless dialogue and descriptions of domestic scenes, coupled with a slow pace. However, via the twelve year-old Harriet, who is intelligent, intense and wilful, you are drawn irresistibly into the decaying  small town gothic American south of the mid 1970's. Harriet becomes determined to find and punish whoever killed her brother, and thanks to information provided to her by the family's hard-done-by housekeeper, Ida, she fixates on local red-neck meth-head Danny Ratliff, whom, along with his brothers, are the toughest criminal element in town. Once Harriet and her only friend, Hely Hull, set out to track down Danny the novel really takes off, becoming totally absorbing and engaging. Of course, as with all great novels, you need the set-up for the pay-off to really work, so any requirement of patience and work on behalf of the reader is well worth it.

The Little Friend has been criticised for being something like a Nancy Drew mystery, but this is totally misguided criticism. The novel is very adult, incredibly compelling and the writing is absolutely brilliant. Tartt really is a superb writer of fiction and her descriptive powers are endlessly astounding. When Tartt sets a scene you are really there with the characters, who are all fully realised creations, including the many minor characters. I truly believe that Tartt is one of the most talented writers to ever put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard?). The tension that Tartt builds throughout the novel is almost unbearable, I had to keep putting the book down to take a break. On the other hand I have never laughed so spontaneously and so loud and long at a scene that involved a cobra, a skeletal old grandma called Gum and an open-top Trans Am, and the thing is, I'm not even sure if it was meant to funny! The novel is also very dark, filled with despair, malevolence, bathos and paranoia, playing out like a TV series made by David Lynch, but without the supernatural elements. There are also some of the most brilliant set pieces I've ever read, like when Hely eavesdrops on a tense scene in a seedy pool-hall and the intense scenes when Harriet and Hely break into a house containing boxes of poisonous snakes owned by a travelling snake-handling preacher. The Little Friend is filled with such moments, it was a novel I desperately wanted to get to the end of so I could find out what would happen, yet I also didn't want it to end because it was so enjoyable. It's an extremely clever novel in that it doesn't give up its secrets too easily, you need to wait till near the end to find out who the title refers to, and as for some of the other mysteries, I'm not saying anything lest I spoil things for new readers. Oh, and Donna Tartt, it's been nine years since your last novel was published, given your publishing record the new one must be due next year, I certainly hope so.

Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Expendable Man - Dorothy B. Hughs (1963)


Rating: Excellent

Another crime novel in quick succession, this one I found at the op-shop down the road from my library for a dollar. It's a beautiful New York Review of Books (NYRB) edition and as such is pretty much a guarantee of quality. Dorothy B. Hughes was a renowned crime writer, who wrote In a Lonely Place (1947), that became the basis of a successful film starring Humphrey Bogart. The Expendable Man was Hughs last novel and is regarded as one of her best. It is skilfully written, displaying a high literary quality without becoming stylistically over-bearing, which serves the plot and characters well. The main protagonist, Dr. Hugh Densmore, is introduced on the first page, as he drives his family's Cadillac from L.A. to Phoenix and picks up a young female hitch-hiker against his better judgement. The young woman, of course, goes on to cause Densmore a great deal of trouble, particularly after she is found dead in a canal. Densmore is the main suspect and much of the novel focusses on his efforts to both protect and clear his name. The Expendable Man is a compelling read and the tension builds nicely throughout. There are some cliched elements, like the character of Venner, a hard-man detective who sneers and slurs his speech in what is referred to as a 'pornographic' manner; and the red-neck elements working in the background to try and make sure that Densmore is framed for the murder. It's good to keep in mind, however, that at the time such tropes were not that over-done.

The novel is generally well-paced and the tension is only released in the last pages, which, when it comes, is a relief. Hughs was a clever writer and there's a moment about a third of the way through where, in one sentence, everything is turned on its head and the readers' perception of what is going on is completely changed. I almost gasped when I read the sentence and realised what had happened. There is evil in this novel, but it is not Densmore, rather it is institutionalised via the justice system and the moral standards of the era. The Expendable Man is an indictment of American society at the time and, although it's almost a cliche to say this now, could easily be freshly published today and be seen in the same light. This is noir crime fiction with a social conscience. Although the novel is genuinely excellent, and I did mostly enjoy it, it did leave me feeling slightly soiled by its atmosphere of desperation and deceit. Although I will be reading more crime novels in the future, I'm not sure I like the way they make me feel. At the library crime novels are the most heavily borrowed books and it is also the most successful fiction genre in the world, however it may turn out not to be for me in the end. Curiously the current novel I'm reading, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002), involves both a crime and criminals, so I may be convinced yet.

Saturday 16 April 2022

After Dark, My Sweet - Jim Thompson (1955)


Rating: Admirable

Crime is another genre, along with fantasy, that I haven't paid much attention to over the years. For some reason I'm being drawn to crime fiction now and mentioned it in passing to a good friend from Melbourne who then sent me four crime novels he had found in op-shops. Among them was After Dark, My Sweet, by one of the masters of crime noir from the mid twentieth century, Jim Thompson. The novel involves the sociopath, William Collins, former boxer and freshly escaped from a mental institution (his fourth), becoming involved with the alcoholic femme-fatale, Fay Anderson. William is recognised as the perfect fall-guy by Fay's crooked-cop associate, Uncle Bud, who between them have a scheme to kidnap the child of a wealthy family. Even a relative novice in the crime genre like me can recognise that the novel contains all of the typical tropes of crime noir. All of the characters are, in turn, brooding, unpredictable, scheming and violent. The atmosphere is bleak and desperate. The plot unfolds like a tense nightmare that is reasonably unpredictable, despite all the cliched crime tropes being present and correct.

Looking at Thompson's bibliography, he really pumped out the novels, publishing four in 1954 alone! A glance at Thompson's Wikipedia entry reveals the opinion that his output varied in quality, writing some novels in only a month. You can tell, as After Dark, My Sweet does not present as high quality writing, but it is not exactly pulp either. The novel is written in first person from the point of view of Collins, and so is coloured by his hard-man vernacular and distorted world view; so much so it's almost as if he wrote the novel himself. It took me a while to get used to and it doesn't help that there are barely any sympathetic characters throughout the novel. No one trusts each other, and this constant tension makes for a dark and nervous read. I wouldn't say reading After Dark, My Sweet was an enjoyable experience, but it was very interesting. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for readers in the mid-fifties being exposed to such sociopathic darkness, did they have more innocent exceptions back then and were they more easily affected by crime's dark underbelly? Perhaps not, but they might not have quite been used to Thompson's particular gritty, nihilistic style, something the modern reader is well used to by now. I may well read more of Thompson's work, after all he did write the script for Stanley Kubrick's film, The Killing (1956) and this novel did enough to interest me.

Thursday 31 March 2022

Green Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)


Rating: Excellent

Yet another large novel, this one 780 pages of hard science fiction. Green Mars is set fifty years after the conclusion of Red Mars (1992), a science fiction novel I consider to one one of the best out there. Green Mars isn't quite up to the same standard, but it does come close. Mars has changed, terraforming has come a long way, with the atmosphere thickening and warming enough for genetically engineered plants and microorganisms to begin to flourish. The survivors of the first hundred are in hiding, mostly in a habitat under the South Pole. Most of the key characters from the first novel have survived, thanks to the longevity treatments developed in the first novel, which is great for continuity, but also not an impossible premise considering research into longevity has been going on for decades in what passes for reality. There's also a host of new characters, mostly offspring of the first hundred, known as the Nisei, bred by the mystic, Hiroko. In the same manner as the first novel Robinson gives large sections of the narrative over to different characters in turn, and it is through one of the Nisei, Nirgal, that the new Mars is revealed to the reader. The legendary stowaway, Coyote, takes Nirgal out onto the surface and introduces him to all of the secret underground communities. Mars exists in a tense split between the transnational corporations and the underground, who want to make Mars their own, away from the corrupt capitalism of Earth promoted by the transnationals.

As with Red Mars, this novel takes its time, giving you long descriptions of the geological landforms of Mars. To get the most out of the novel you must either be really into geology, or appreciate just how vivid Robinson's descriptions of Mars are, so vivid they give you a strong sense of really being there on the surface. Robinson makes it totally believable and even desirable that one day humans would be on Mars in a similar situation. Although there is plenty of focus on the planet itself, often the narrative leans toward the philosophical, scientific and the political. The characters are roughly grouped in this manner, with Hiroko and her followers espousing a profound sense of connection with the planet itself, viriditas. The magnificently named Saxifrage 'Sax' Russell continues his mission to terraform Mars, in fact he is perhaps the key character, an influential 'scientist as hero' (the title of part four in fact). Politics is everywhere throughout Green Mars, via the underground, Nirgal, Coyote and the intense Russian femme fatale, Maya Toitovna. Through Maya the physiological effects of the longevity treatment are explored, what it does to the psyche, the memory and perception, which is generally fascinating stuff. These are merely some of the many themes explored throughout the novel; Robinson really packs an enormous amount of information and detail within the 780 pages, it was almost an exhausting endeavour to get through, however it is well worth it and I'm looking forward to reading Blue Mars (1996) in the near future.


Sunday 20 March 2022

Crossroads - Jonathan Franzen (2021)


Rating: Excellent

Another family saga by Jonathan Franzen, this time it's the rather dysfunctional Hildebrandt family who live in suburban Chicago circa 1971. I'm one of the few people who haven't read the dysfunctional family saga The Corrections (2001), but I did read Freedom (2010), which was impressive. Crossroads is a massive novel, in terms of length but also thematically, covering religion, morality, trauma, drug addiction, mental illness and all the cultural baggage of the time, such as Vietnam and the counter-culture. Apparently it will be the first novel in a trilogy called 'A Key to all Mythologies', taken from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871), being the academic work of Edward Casaubon, who is trying to link all mythologies to Christianity. The Hildebrandt family, apart from the youngest son, Judson, all feature prominently, with long sections dedicated to each in turn, focussing on their own particular struggles and world-view. Readers will have their favourites, and mine was Perry, a fourteen year old budding intellectual with narcissistic tendencies who becomes very dysfunctional indeed. Marion, the matriarch, is the queen of dysfunction, closely followed by her uptight and frustrated husband, Russ, who seethes with jealously toward a hip young minister, Rick Ambrose (Russ is a middle-aged minister at the first Reformed Church) and lusts after a beautiful younger widow, Frances. All have their moments in the literary sun throughout the novel, as do older siblings Clem and Becky. Franzen takes his time, giving his well fleshed out characters plenty of narrative space to deal with their issues. Ultimately it makes for compelling reading.

Crossroads is serious literary fiction and requires both concentration and dedication. Fortunately the novel is well worth the effort. The sentences are long, but not particularly showy, there's not much in the way of beauty here, but there is a great deal of psychological intensity in Franzen's prose, and that is something to both enjoy and admire. As with all great novel titles, Crossroads has multiple meanings, being the name of a Christian youth group that is at the centre of the novel, and where most of the protagonists find themselves at one point or another; it's also where American society finds itself as it begins to become more polarised and more secular. The world that Franzen builds is vivid, as are the struggles of the characters. Marion, in particular, is a traumatised and conflicted character, and the long section that delves into her past is disturbing and dark, so much so it's a relief to move onto the next chapter and another character. The age old problems of how to be virtuous and moral are explored via the struggles of multiple characters, but as Perry and Russ find out, easy answers are more often not forthcoming. Such universal themes are always fertile ground for novelists and Franzen certainly makes the most of it in Crossroads, so much so that at the end you are left wanting more. I'm hoping that the 'Key to all Mythologies' will be as rewarding as John Updike's epic Rabbit novels, that played out over decades (beginning in the sixties and ending in the naughties) and followed the same characters as they lived their very human lives. There's your challenge Jonathan Franzen, but I have no doubt that you are up to it, just don't take ten years to deliver the sequels, otherwise you will become Casaubon, which would be regrettable. 

Sunday 13 February 2022

The Vixen - Francine Prose (2021)


Rating: Mediocre

The Vixen begins rather promisingly, with main protagonist Simon Putman witnessing the live to TV reporting of Russian spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, being executed via electrocution in 1953. Simon's mother was an acquaintance of Ethel Rosenberg, and therefore the Putman family is understandibly upset. Simon is a Harvard graduate who ends up getting a junior position at a New York publishing firm. Eventually he's given the job of editing a potboiler novel based on the Rosenbergs, called, wait for it, The Vixen, The Patriot and The Fanatic. The real The Vixen novel is a middling novel at this point, with attempts at humour from Simon's constant insecurities about, well, pretty much everything. It is difficult to write novels that are funny and I've noticed over the years that authors try to generate humour via character's insecurities. However when it is over-done, as it is here, the reader quickly becomes very irritated, as I certainly did. I did marginally enjoy the accounts of Simon's times at Harvard and some of the scenes at the publishing firm, however Simon is a totally unlikeable protagonist; totally insufferable, and although I acknowledge that he's meant to be like that, it just doesn't make for good reading.

The novel picks up when the supposed author of The Vixen, The Patriot and The Fanatic is introduced. Anya Partridge is a wild impetuous young woman who takes Simon on a rollercoaster ride of passion and lusty madness. Anya is a vital spark that improves the novel immensely. Unfortunately she disappears, leaving both Simon and the reader in a forlorn state. Such was my subsequent disinterest in the narrative, I sped-read the last half of the book, which is a rare thing for me to do. There are some revelations in there, but I just didn't care at all. During The Vixen's denouement I just wanted it to end, but it dragged on, and then ended suddenly, with a life-lesson for both Simon and the reader. This was a book club read and I wasn't the only one who didn't enjoy the novel, in fact it is one of the worst rated novels in the book club's fifteen year history, and that's saying something. I'm sorry Francine Prose, but we just didn't like the novel, maybe because we are Australian? Perhaps American readers would warm to the novel more, with its cold-war setting and propaganda and 'fake news' themes. 

Monday 24 January 2022

David Bowie: A Life - Dylan Jones (2017)


Rating: Excellent

I've read so many biographical Bowie books in the past that I never thought I'd read another one again, however when A Life was published in the year after Bowie's death I kept on reading parts of it each time I went to the book store. I resisted buying it, but then I saw it about six months ago in a second hand book store for only ten dollars, and so here I am. The reason why I bought and read it in the end is because of its unique (among Bowie books) lay-out in which people that knew Bowie in all kinds of capacities talk about him in terms of their personal experiences. What makes this book fascinating is the range of people involved that you don't normally find in Bowie books, there's childhood friends, collaborators, musicians bloggers, journalists, novelists, designers, artists, actors and even a palliative care doctor. This disparate bunch of people give a really interesting perspective into Bowie and his life. Also, refreshingly, A Life does not deal that much with his music, rather the primary focus is on Bowie as a person and on how he went about his business. As a long time Bowie fan who knows a great deal about the man and his music there was a great deal to discover. It was a total pleasure to read. A Life is set out chronologically in time, and is broken up into discreet periods, which worked well. Some may find it a bit repetitive and the other 'flaw' is that there are no photographs, but these are minor matters. If you are a Bowie fan I advise you to read this book.

In keeping with the theme of A Life I thought I'd write about my relationship with Bowie. I was born in 1969 and by 1979 I had become aware of Bowie, but did not become a fan until my sister took me to see him in concert in 1983. I was amazed, enthralled, and started buying his back catalogue. As a typical alienated angsty teenager Bowie was just what I needed. In A Life it is pointed out that Bowie was able to project himself in a way that appeared to be speaking directly to the individual, that you could recognise something about what you were going through in your life and feel that you were understood. In this way he became a kind of friend to me, someone you could turn to when things weren't great. I could put on the Diamond Dogs (1974) album, for example, which was filled with obscure lyrical references and dark themes, and feel like it spoke directly to me. Added to this was his musical brilliance, his predilection for fascinating cultural references and his striking individuality. I was lucky enough to meet Bowie in 1987 at the back of the Sydney Entertainment Centre. I spoke to him briefly and got his autograph. It was a bizarre experience, like I had drunk a few beers on an empty stomach. I'll never forget it. That bonus one on one experience with Bowie was certainly great, but really what I am grateful for is that Bowie gave me a lifetime of both musical and intellectual stimulation and a strong personal connection that ultimately is distinctly humanist. So thank you, Mr David Bowie.