Thursday, 5 February 2009

Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers

It's been awhile between book review posts but before I get on with this one I must make full disclosure. A much-admired friend recommended this book - Antonia Quirke's Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers - with the warning that I would either love it or hate it because he thought it was close to what I might be able to write.

Hah, I'd love to say as much but, honestly I WISH.

Having just re-read the book this week for a second time I am still swept away by flattery. Because it's awesome. I love it and you will too. Largely autobiographical it is basically the story of how Quirke's obsession with male movie stars has hindered her own relationships. It sounds... weird, and it sort of is but it also has a certain luscious charm, largely because Quirke is clearly BESOTTED with her subject and it shows.
"The thing is I can't take my eyes off (Jeremy) Irons's face in any of them. And I mean that literally. I just can't take my eyes off him. There is a quality of mesmeric handsomeness in certain actors which simplifies the experience of movie-going to the point where the aesthetic pleasures of bone structure photographed over an hour or so are entirely enough to satisfy you... Faces so beautiful that you get a tension between the idea of a movie being a story and it being portraiture. It's weird - your appetite for looking at these faces seems never to be sated. Were Last Tango in Paris twelve hours long I'd still be shovelling (Marlon) Brando's face into my eyes. H0ow can we tear ourselves away."

It's a hard thing to capture here, in little quotes, and it sort of has a more cumulative effect, but it's also very funny.
"Had I reviewed The Mirror Has Two Faces, I might have been tempted to write something like 'Jeff Bridges looks as if he wishes he were elsewhere'. It's a classic reviewer's white lie, designed to let a favourite actor off the hook... It's a kindness. But in The Mirror Has Two Faces, I submit, we have a genuine once-in-a-lifetime example. No beautiful teen asked to fall for Woody Allen could ever have looked so stunned and reluctant and nauseated as Jeff does looking at Barbra Streisand."

Now if that doesn't make you smile this may not be the book for you. But if you do... get onboard. Then I can pretend I wrote it.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

holiday reading - colonisation, pornography and human agency

When it comes to reading tastes I am nothing if not eclectic. There are some books that just call to me as surely as others challenge me by ignoring all moral boundaries and ethics. So it was I handed over to the woman at the counter at Dymocks on the first full day of leave Chuck Palahniuk's latest drop in the ocean of collective seediness Snuff and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The latter a novel that I can recommend to everyone including my grandmother and the former a novel I'm still not entirely sure I should be proud of owning.

Firstly, the cover of Palahniuk's latest offering makes it look exactly what it is - a novel about pornography, so I wouldn't recommend reading it in a doctor's waiting room or at the office during lunch break. It is about an ageing porn queen who's career has taken a turn for the worst who is convinced as one last high five to the industry to set a new record for the number of sex acts in a film - 600. It takes place in the green room on the set as the 600 guys are forced to wait naked for their turn and tells Cassie Wright's story through flashback. It's not for coy readers, that's for sure.

About one chapter in I was getting ready to put the novel down and call it a dead loss, but something about Palahniuk's dry wit made me stick with it. It has its moments, like Cassie's assistant Sheila's assesment of the porn industry and by extension, society:

"Want to drag the bottom for every loser, every pervert with issues around intimacy, men completely unable to reveal themselves and terrified of rejection - you want a cross section of those bottom feeders - just run a couple newspaper ads seeking male performers for a gang bang feature.
This crew of pud-pullers, these ham-whammers, it's they who killed the Sony Betamax. Decided VHS over Beta technology. Brought the expensive first generation of the Internet into their homes. Made the whole Web possible. It's their lonesome money, paid for the servers. Their online porn purchases generated the buying technology, all the firewall security that makes eBay and Amazon possible.
These lonely jerk jockeys, voting with their dicks, the decided HD versus Blu-ray for the world's dominant high definition technology.
"Early adopters," the consumer electronics industry calls them. With their pathological loneliness. Their inability to form an emotional bond.
True fact.
These pud-pullers, these jerk offs, it's them leading the rest of us. It's what gets them off that decides what your million kids will want for Christmas next year."

But Sheila is wrong. These people aren't incapable of forming emotional bonds, in fact so much about the novel centres on just that. For example in the green room with the rest of the 600 is a young man who believes himself to be Cassies illegitimate son, given up for adoption at childbirth. Everyone in the green room is after something, but actually receives something else. Salvation or damnation, Palahniuk doesn't make clear, perhaps he doesn't believe in either.

I find a lot of modern American writers drop words. Why? Is there a shortage over there? Why does Sheila say "It's their lonesome money, paid for the servers"? Shouldn't there be a "that" in there? It makes me hear Sarah Connor in T2 in my head somehow - I don't know if that is significant or not in the context of a novel.

Aside from missing the odd word here and there Palahniuk also seems to have forgotten to make his point. I wasn't entirely sure what he was trying to say. He seemed to be going somewhere interesting with Cassie as a metaphor in the early chapters - keeping Cassie as an independent agent, making her own choices however ill advised they may appear. The whole mother/whore dichotomy was fantastically (and quite disturbingly) cross sectioned by having her supposed son involved in the film. But halfway through he decides to make Cassie (and, incidentally, the only other female character, Sheila) the victim, drugged and duped into the porn industry. Snore. For the supposed maverick of contemporary fiction, Chuck isn't breaking much new ground in his assumptions.

Was he just trying to say the industry makes a victim of everybody, as Mr 137 says to Cassie's supposed son?:

'"You and every man in here, no matter what you do up in that room, whether you tell Cassie Wright you love her, or you fuck her, or you do both - don't expect you'll ever get confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court."
Porn, he says, is a job you only take after you abandon all hope.'

The ending does not make it clear, it seems Palahniuk is ambivalent on his feelings about the cult of celebrity, the fraudulent perfection of stardom and the relationship between pornography, prostitution and human agency.

Human agency, in an interesting and hitherto unexpected coincidence, is also the major theme of Kingsolver's classic, The Poisonwood Bible. Could this novel be any better?

In 1959, Bapist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four young daughters to a small settlement in the Belgian Congo to convert the natives there to Christianity. They were supposed to stay 12 months, but as fate would have it their stay was caught up in war, ignorance, local politics and tore the family apart.

Told by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and her four daughters the tale has a touch of To Kill a Mockingbird about it. The patriarch of the family rules with an iron fist, he is dogged by past shame and cowardice and his character is underscored by his assumption that he knows better than everyone else. His unwillingness to learn what he is doing wrong in his work in the village renders it both useless and unintentionally comical to those who live there.

The Price family, of course, is a parallel of the conflict in Africa on a micro-scale. Nathan is the coloniser of his wife and four children, under the guise of leading the way to those incapable of helping themselves. His eye is on the prize of the saved souls of Africa, at the expense of the souls of his children. However, as his rule becomes increasingly self-serving, misguided and dangerous the women must abandon him to save what is left of their own spirit. While it is happening, the worth of the people of the Congo was weighed by conqueror after conqueror and found insignificant in comparison to the diamonds and minerals therein.

In the novel, the personal is political and each character finds her or himself swept away on the tide of human history, decisions made calmly by a group of men in a room somewhere. Orleanna explains how it happened that her family came into such jeopardy:

"For women like me, it seems, it's not ours to take charge of beginnings and endings. Not the marriage proposal, the summit conquered, the first shot fired , nor the last one either - the treaty at Appomattox, the knife in the heart. Let men write those stories. I can't. I only know the middle ground where we live our lives. We whistle while Rome burns, or we scrub the floor depending. Don't dare presume there's shame in the lot of a woman who carries on. On the day a committee of men decided to murder the fledgling Congo, what do you suppose Mama Mwanza was doing? Was it different, the day after? Of course not. Was she a fool, then, or the backbone of a history? When a government comes crashing down, it crushes those who were living under its roof. People like Mama Mwanza never knew the house was there at all. Independence is a complex word in a foreign tongue. To resist occupation, whether you're a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain."

The novel is charmingly and poetically told, but it is also heartbreaking. I confess a lump came to my throat as I read the last page. Still, I would recommend it to anyone.

To follow the religious theme, my next challenge, as part of holiday reading, is Nick Cave's novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. So far so good.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Road... to nowhere?

An hour or so after finishing Cormac McCarthy's The Road I'm still not sure what I thought about it, or whether it's provoked much of a reaction in me at all. Which is, I think, kind of the point. It was A Good Read: improbably pacy and engaging, not nearly as depressing as I'd feared and well written in McCarthy's perfectly serviceable style.

And yet. If I hadn't been told how brilliant it was I don't think I'd be thinking of it at all. If I didn't know it had won a Pullitzer Prize I think I would have said to myself, probably not aloud, "oh that was good" and then put it back on my bookshelf. Instead I'm forcing myself to write something about it because, so everyone tells me, It Is An Important Book.

Is it though?

Having a Father who reads and owns a lot of science fiction I've read quite a bit in my time. I grew up loving stories of post-apocalyptic worlds, in books and onscreen and although the debate on whether this book qualifies on that front I'm not entirely sure what it is that sets this book apart from every other post-apocalyptic book I've read and enjoyed and then forgotten.

Could it be the nature of the post apocalyptic world? The cannibals? The ash? The symbolism of the road? Eh, I think not: nothing that hasn't been covered endlessly in books and films. The themes of isolation, hopelessness etc? Pah, nothing I didn't read in Z for Zachariah as a teenager (and at least that book was a little sexy). The father-son bond? Of course because it's SUCH a rarity see the bond between parent and child revered,right? right? Vomit. So then is it the quality of the writing? Well... maybe. I quite like McCarthy's style, mostly. He has some occassionally breathtaking similes and some dazzling turns of phrase but the simplistic sentences and the endless conversations bereft of quotation marks do get a little wearing. Nothing I would care to read, say, 500 pages of, instead of 200-odd.

In the book's defence it's not that I didn't lilke it. I did. It was interesting, well written and enjoyable. I wouldn't read it again but I might recommend it to someone else if they liked that kind of thing. It's a good book, maybe a very good book. But is it (to take some random quotes from the inside dustjacket of my copy) "a masterpiece that will soon be considered a classic", "a work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away" or "the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation"?

Well not for me it isn't.

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Corrections

This is not a post designed to endear myself to my literary blogging colleagues or to make myself sound particularly brainy but I don’t always like, er, very thick books. They put me off. I’m sorry – pop a dunce hat on me and I’ll sit in the corner.

There is something to be said, no doubt, for epics of the Forsythe Saga or Anna Karenina variety. There is something delightful, too, about being whisked away for 600 pages to emerge breathless and slightly dazed. Even so, pretty much all of my favourite books are short. I think it was JG Ballard who said there is no such thing as a perfect novel but there are perfect short stories and, by gum, he had a point. The shorter a book is the fewer mistakes, logically, it can have. The shorter a book is the tighter, generally, a book’s prose must be. Instead of waffling on for a page about the way the sun hit the lake in the morning you have a sentence and the result is more likely to linger in the reader’s memory than 500 words of fuck-all about the reflection of this and that or the way the duck’s arse rested delicately on the reflective surface. Etc.

But every now and again there are exceptions and Jonathan Franzen’s truly divine The Corrections is one of them.

I have just about finished re-reading this one and, frankly, the sheer bulk of it is a joy. How else to tell the separate but interlocking stories of one messed up family? How else to truly get to grips with the joy of family member chip’s screenplay which “starts off with a six-page lecture about the anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama” and only gets more (unintentionally) funny?

It’s been awhile since I read the book the first time around and if I’m honest it’s the bloody size of the thing that’s put me off. I’ll do it another time, I mutter, slipping a delightfully slim volume of something else out of the bookcase instead. Perhaps I’ll wait to take it on a holiday or something. Naturally I wish I hadn’t waited so long. And yet. Although I would not want to whittle this particular book down the sublime brusqueness of, say, anything Graham Greene every wrote, neither would I say there aren’t opportunities for brevity. I could, I feel, chop a swift 50 pages out without shedding much in the way of tears.

Even so, are those additional 50 pages, with or without any potentially forgotten lake descriptions that might crop up in the remaining pages I have to go, a fair price for a joy of a book? Of course. Does this mean I’ll be taking on War and Peace anytime soon? Er, maybe for my next holiday…

Monday, 14 April 2008

Martin Martin's on the Other Side by Mark Wernham: do not buy this book

There's something about being ballsy enough to claim your first novel follows in the footsteps of A Clockwork Orange and 1984. It's a big claim to make and more important than anything else you do is to be bloody right about it. Mark Wernham wasn't right when he made that claim about his debut Martin Martin's on the Other Side. He's taken elements from all the dystopian classics, added a supremely stupid main character and created a novel that is poorly written, totally unbelievable and completely irritating. What's worse, this novel has the intelligence sucking properties of a black hole, an intellectual vacuum from which nothing can escape.

To cut a 300 page story short - it is the "not too distant future", Jensen Interceptor is a spy for the government. He's also an idiot. Jensen starts spying on a gang of zealots that believe a TV psychic from 40 years ago, Martin Martin, is actually God and will return to overthrow the oppressive government. Along the way he meets Martin Martin, or at least the spirit of a long dead soldier from WW2 who is inhabiting Martin Martin's dead body who tells him the government has planted a chip in his brain. I don't want to point out the obvious so early but a government that gets its information from studying the brain of a teenage moron should seriously rethink the quality of the information it's looking for.

Anyway, Jensen travels through time, vomits a lot, gets blown up, falls from a building, somehow gets laid, then everything goes back to normal. It is a clumsy rip off of all the other versions that have come before it. And I hate to point out the obvious about this male wank-fest but the only role women play in the novel is something to have sex with. Which I suppose puts Wernham's novel in good company but isn't appreciated nonetheless.

I enjoyed A Clockwork Orange. I enjoyed that although the main character was a violent thug, somehow he was constructed so we'd empathise with him. His dialect was a complex one and it remained consistent throughout the novel. I also enjoyed A Brave New World for its ability to tell a story so horrific in the most simplistic way imaginable. The language of both these novels embodied the stories they were telling, Clockwork was a world in which brutality was no less horrific for its various guises, New World was a world that embraced an infantile simplicity as a means of control.

Mark Wernham seems to have taken elements of both of these novels and completely misused them. In his vision of the "not too distant future" his main character is not a violent thug like Clockwork's Alex but is just purely mindless. Jensen lives in a hedonistic, misogynistic society that prizes drugs, orgies, porn, monster trucks and the status quo. He too narrates in his own individual style. But his style is what you'd hear in your average upper school classroom: "I was totally like fucking freaked out, you know?". That's not an edgy new voice, it's just irritating especially since Wernham is so conscious of using it. Take for example, this piece of wisdom:

"I start to get the feeling again. Not the scrapey achy-breaky feeling from all the violence that has been done to my bod thanks to the old death plunge on to the roof of the Old Bank, although that's there, right enough; and not the pukey yag-up feeling, although there's plenty of that too. No it's the swimmy feeling in the head that comes as the scenery's changing or someone dead's about to pop up and start chit-chatting with me. It's like when I talked to the lush caff lady and I Saw her story and how the gov fucked her lover over, shot him in his head - it's that feeling."

Yes. Quite.

The most annoying thing about it is that he isn't even consistent. In one of the most action packed parts of this tiresome and boring novel Wernham's has his main character drop his manner of speech just for convenience. I suppose Jensen's colloquial style was an effort to have him appeal to our sense of humour but he's so stupid you really just want to smack him in the face with a rock and be done with it. No matter how vile the world you're portraying is, unless there's something redeeming in the characters why would we care what happens to them? As Jensen would say "just fucking fuck it".

About a quarter through the novel I started to consider the possibility that this was a book designed for the lowest Year 10 English class that the teachers need to offer something with spies and explosions to if they hope to get the kids to read it. But there's too much swearing for upper school and too much juvenile humour for just about anyone so what Wernham's intention was other than ripping off past greats is beyond me. The most horrific thing is that one day someone might make a movie out of it. God help us.

In short not only do I regret spending the $32 to actually own this hideous appropriation of the English language but I hate that I also wasted a large chunk of my weekend having my intelligence insulted by it. I took a punt on a book with a ridiculous title and I'm paying the price. Don't you get caught in the same trap. Not that I'm into mind control or oppression but I sincerely recommend should you come across this book in the wild you hold a ritualistic book burning rather than actually open it. Society needs to be protected.

Post script: If anyone does want to read the novel, either out of morbid curiosity or to establish exactly how full of shit I am, I have a copy. Please, feel free to take it off my hands.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

let me introduce you to Mickey Sabbath

"But now, preposterously, the morning hard-on was gone. The things one has to put up with in life. The morning hard-on - like a crowbar in your hand, like something growing out of an ogre. . .There eagerly waiting while you brush your teeth - "What are we going to do today?" Nothing more faithful in all of life than the lurid cravings of the morning hard-on. No deceit in it. No simulation. No insincerity. All hail to that driving force! Human living with a capital L! It takes a lifetime to determine what matters, and by then it's not there anymore. Well, one must learn to adapt. How is the only problem."

Actually, in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theatre, it didn't take Mickey a lifetime to determine what mattered, he knew right away. Then, after the death of his brother in WW2 and the retreat of his mother into the tortured recesses of her own mind, Mickey went in for debauchery instead. He spent years from the age of 17 on the "Romance Run" as a merchant sailor, the route that included cities with the highest number of brothels per capita in the world. His first wife, damaged by her father, mysteriously disappeared. His second, equally damaged by her father, disappeared into alcoholism. His lover, a woman as licentious as he, dies. Finally, at the end of his life, alone, "wifeless, penniless, mistressless", without so much as a morning hard-on, Mickey wants nothing more than death himself.

Or does he? Because he's a puppeteer, our friend Mickey. He's been performing so long, even he can't tell the difference between the real tears and the crocodile. When he tells people about murdering his first wife, the reader starts to wonder what really happened. In fact, the only way you know he's telling the truth is when he doubts himself. He wants to die, but around every corner he is confronted by another reason to live. It is the masochist's nightmare, no matter how empty and dire his life is, it keeps failing to hit rock bottom.

"Fuck the laudable ideologies. Shallow, shallow, shallow! Enough reading and rereading of A Room of One's Own - get yourself The Collected Works of Ava Gardner. A tweaking and fingering, lesbian virgin, V. Woolf, erotic life one part prurience, nine parts fear - an overbred English parody of a borzoi, effortlessly superior, as only the English can be, to all her inferiors, who never took her clothes off in her life. But a suicide remember. The list grows more inspiring by the year. I'd be the first pupeteer.

The law of living: fluctuation. For every thought a counter thought, for every urge a counterurge. No wonder you either go crazy and die or decide to disappear. Too many urges, and that's not even a tenth of the story. Mistressless, wifeless, vocationless, homelesss, penniless, he steals the bikini panties of a nineteen-year-old nothing and, riding a swell of adrenaline, stuffs them for safekeeping in his pocket - these panties are just what he needs. Does no one else's brain work in quite this way? I don't believe that. This is ageing, pure and simple, the self-destroying hilarity of the last roller coaster. Sabbath meets his match: life. The puppet is you. The grotesque buffoon is you. You're Punch, schmuck, the puppet who toys with taboos!"

Everything I read about Roth as I started this book was along the lines of "not for the faint-hearted". Oh, yeah, ain't that the truth. Roth wants to toy with you, he wants to shock you. But then somehow he comes out with something brilliant and all is forgiven. Sabbath is totally unlikeable - but he's often honest, which makes up for a lot. Did that just contradict what I said earlier about him always performing? Well, best get used to that, Roth likes his contradictions. He chooses to flit between first person and third person, present tense and past tense, hopeful comedy and dire tragedy.

You're not supposed to like Sabbath but you empathise with him to an extent. You consider mortality through him, because a painful death couldn't happen to a more deserving person. Then, just as his complete moral and mental annihilation is complete, precisely when he's offended as much as he can possibly offend - death shies away. But the joke's on us, because somehow by the end of the novel, when he tells a son that pissing on his mother's grave while dressed in an American flag and a yarmulke was a "religious act", you just can't find it in yourself to hate him as much as you should. Sabbath's Indecent Theatre indeed.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The Line of Beauty

I have been doing an absolutely atrocious job on the mission I, among others in the blogging fraternity, embarked on at the tail end of last year to make our way through the winners of the Man Booker prize. Not only have I lost my list of the winners but I have failed to read a single one of them (excluding those I’ve read before obviously) until last week. Laziness is a curse, I know.

Last week, however, I was fortunate enough to pick up Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and, gosh, wasn’t it pretty. The title refers to a phrase coined by William Hogarth in his rather famous The Analysis of Beauty to describe a certain S-bend that, in Hogarth’s mind, gave us a jolt of visual pleasure (well I’m paraphrasing but that’s my interpretation). This book gave me several jolts of not-so-visual pleasure.

Sceptics among you may suggest I only like this novel because it involves terribly English, terribly good looking boys having lots of sex and doing lots of drugs but, while I do appreciate all of these things, the book itself is so prettily written, delivering up absolute corkers of sentences that quite literally had me rereading them and rereading them in the hope of committing them to memory, that the hot sex and the drugs sort of fall away into the background. Even Margaret Thatcher’s presence about halfway into it – surely the perfect cold shower – failed to dent my appetite for this book.

Unintentionally or not the book also has parallels with that great favourite of mine The Great Gatsby: a narrator (called Nick) finds himself thrown together with the very rich and powerful and gets caught up in its pull. Except this time instead of the roaring 20s it’s the soulless 80s and instead of the elegant Gatsby we get politicians.

Strongly recommended if you’re into 1)boys, 2)elegant sentences 3)Henry James (yeah as with other Hollinghurst HJ is basically an unseen character in this book). I loved it.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Sign of the Times

I have become, god help me, quite a convert to The Times since my trip home. I'm being throughly spoiled. Firstly, the paper (and many other of its sister broadsheets) is handbag-sized. A newspaper! Handbag-sized! Genuis! Secondly, after lashings and lashings of real, actual news, of varied descriptions, both local and international it also has a plethora of columnists whose insightful commentary drives me wild.

Comment pieces from dating and assessing your chosen man's books collection when he is not looking, to queueing at Waitrose, to the price of oil to what-have-you. There was even a rather useful one on doping up your cat the other week (note to self, Bach's flower remedies...). These are grown-up columnists who like a gin and tonic and dislike great swathes of things about ordinary life and tackle it with intelligence and humour. They also fill me with despair. I'm going to stop reading the Worst (aside from work purposes) and start reading real newspapers again, otherwise how in hell's name am I ever going to get any better at what I do?

On the upside, the benchmark in WA is quite low so I suppose it's not a huge leap. Must remember to read outside the square and perhaps write something that's not a huge load of bollocks for a change.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

summer reading: A Clockwork Orange

You'll be shocked to learn that I have not seen Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel (or maybe not depending on how much you care) and so came to read it with an open mind. I at once felt I was in cahoots with Burgess after reading his scathing introduction explaining that the US version had the final section cut off at the request of the publisher, which entirely changed the meaning of the novel and the subsequent film (which he doesn't think an awful lot of either). I'm tossing up whether it is safe to talk about the ending here. I'm going with yes, because Burgess talks about it himself in the introduction (talk about a plot spoiler) and because it is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Stop reading after the third paragraph from the end if you wish.

It is a difficult novel because there is not a single character there for you to like. Alex is a brutal self-indulgent thug, the State brain washes 17 year old murderers, parents are emotionally absent, pensioners prone to brutal retaliation, political activists self-serving as always, police barely distinguishable from the criminals they beat into submission. Everyone uses everyone else, everyone, from parents, to political activitsts to prison chaplains, just wants to get what he can for himself. Throughout it all there is the language, which is a veil to keep characters apart from each other and the reader. We are all alone in our choices, Burgess is saying, we are free to make them on our own and we alone will face the consequences.

It is a terrible indictment on people's suggestibility and the notion of conformity, through peer pressure, expedience or subtle brain manipulation. The novel is telling us that free will is the most important gift humans have - preserving our ability to choose is the ultimate good, even if the choices we make are not. But underneath it all is the desire people have to overpower each other, whether in the street or in the jail cell. It is about power by force or stealth and it suggests there is no solution.

Burgess says the missing final chapter in the US version overlooks the character's growth, he says, which is what allows his novel to say that life is something other than brutish and short. Personally however, the final chapter read to me like an afterthought. Alex has his epiphany awfully quickly. He looks to find a wife, settle down, have a child. These are the aspects of society that enforce restraint on all of us in reality: jobs, marriage, insurance, superannuation, mortages. Did the State plant that idea in his head? Did our parents put it in ours? Is conformity a tool to control us? So, really what is important is not that we have a choice, but that we believe we have a choice when in reality we're following our social conditioning?

Alex admits he will fail to control his child, his child will be the same monster he was, until he has a child of his own who he will try to control, but will fail. And the cycle goes on. Which really is the most terrifying vision because it suggests that our lives aren't just brutish and short, but they will also be played out over and over again indefinitely.

Monday, 31 December 2007

The Information, which is nothing and comes at night.

In his big fat tubthumper of a novel The Information Martin Amis says a writer should be able to say that he’s never had to pay for it (being published) in his life. The unintentional irony being, of course, that Amis paid a high price for writing this particular novel – that being a huge public falling out with his publisher (whom he fired) and then-friend, author Julian Barnes, husband of Amis’ former publisher, which culminated in a series of friendship-ending emails which Amis reproduced (partly) in his autobiography.

I assume most people in Australia don’t know about these shenanigans because you’re not complete dorks who follow international literary scandals like yours truly but there you go. Anyway, my point is only that I didn’t pay for my copy of The Information, as it came from a library, but I did start reading it on the way home from the library and barely stop until I finished it and I think it might be quite brilliant. It starts like this:

Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “what is it?” And the men say, “Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams.”
It’s the story of two writers – one famous who writes crap effortlessly – and his far less successful best friend (who, naturally, hates him) and decides to, in his own words “fuck (his friend) up”. The theme of the novel is schadenfreude and although big and as prosey as any of Amis’ more recent novels have been it’s so freaking readable I actually took it with me to the pub on Sunday so I could get another ten minutes into me while I waited for my hot lunch date.

I've been ploughing through Amis lately, with mixed results, but this has been the biggest surprise so far - Excellent.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Jam Will Win the War

My great aunt died a few months ago, and I have taken possession of a few things left to me (not specifically, but by virtue of being the last one to grab stuff, I suppose). Let me just say though, that I have had to endure the horror of my father reading out to me every letter and postcard I ever sent her as a child (and god, I was a good grand-niece) because she kept every single one. And sorry Kato, But I have three sets of pristine, still in their packages, original 1960s seamed stockings. If you're good to my cat, there may be a pair for you.....

Aside from a few pieces of jewellery and a fabulous button collection (i know, it's not normal, but I love them), I have inherited her collection of books. I'm going to have to ship them over and there are a whole load of brilliant ones, such as the entire Dickens collection, an original imprint of Scott's Antarctic diaries and some fab 1940s cookbooks. So good, I share the intro to this one with you now:

Make Your Own Jams

- Complied from Famous Recipes

"EVERY HOUSEWIFE has at the back of her mind the problem of storing food against an emergency. One excellent way is to turn fruit and sugar into jams and preserves. Here are 263 tested recipes from which you can stock your larder with jams and bottles of delicious confections, and make the plainest fare into a feast".

How good is that? A tip for gracious living if I ever heard one. Even better is that I have open slather on all the letters she has kept which reveal the deepest, darkest family secrets. Should keep me going after it gets dark at 3.30pm....

Monday, 17 December 2007

Darkmans: there's nothing like leaving a little to the reader's own sick imagination

I've been scooting around the internet trying to find out everything I can about Nicola Barker, the author of Darkmans, the latest novel to smash my mind into a thousand pieces, melt the pieces down into a syrup and then put it in the freezer until it's solid again but forever changed. I love those novels. I love the people who write them. I google them obsessively. I promise I'm not weird. Well, not very.

I'm thrilled to learn that Barker's been busy making herself known as the author of fiction that is weird, marginal and confronting. "Not for every reader" seems to be the refrain. According to Man-Booker Prize judge Giles Foden's suggestion in the Guardian her work couldn't win this year's prize because it wasn't reader-friendly. "With much more disciplined handling, [the novel] could have been a 'Middlemarch' for our times," he writes.

Darkmans wasn't supposed to be "disciplined". It isn't well behaved, it doesn't so much have a plot as an underlying theme and its protagonists are all people on the very fringe of society who are difficult to feel sympathetic towards. It's also more than 800 pages long. It's creepy, dark and at times very funny. Apparently judges don't like that. But who cares, apparently I do.

Generally speaking, Darkmans is about history catching up with the present. But it's not so much a collision as a congruence. The present, the novel says, is informed by history - the two cannot be separated, they walk the same path, they inhabit the same places and all kinds of strange things can pop up when you least expect them. At the centre of the novel is an Edwardian jester called John Scoggin. He inhabits each of the characters by turns, making them do terrible things. He is funny, irreverent and dangerous. So is the novel. So when Foden suggests it should be more "disciplined" I wonder if he actually read it.

Darkmans is also about language. It is about the development of language, its influences, its evolution. Characters in searching for words, dredge up medieval English and Latin among other languages before landing on the one they want. Writing a book about language is dangerously self-referential but to do it Barker steps outside of traditional form and she does it brilliantly. She is all word-play, in-jokes and asides. She has one of her characters, Peta, say it directly in the last few pages when she talks about an "absurd idea that language has these gaps in it and that lives can somehow just tumble through" and admits that in floating the concept she "just said what I needed to, so we'd both end up here". Barker is talking directly to the reader, apologising, in a way, for the confusion but saying that the ends justify her means.

I didn't get the ending at first. It is like the first time you saw The Sixth Sense and when you realise Bruce Willis is dead and you think, "wait a minute," and you have to quickly replay the entire film back in your mind. In fact when the novel ended I felt I had to turn around and read it again, which is saying something for a book close to 1000 pages. The novel says what it needs to subtly. It glances obliquely at concepts without looking directly for fear that an already jittery reader may go blind. It hints, it suggests, it whispers in your ear and lets the gap between your neurons put in all the scary details. Then it claims innocence - you thought of that all by yourself, you sicko.

Anyway, I'm really bad at reviews so read this one by Patrick Ness that says everything I want to say but better.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Does anyone have a copy of...

Does anyone have a copy of Ethan Frome? It has been recommended to me by a friend in the US who exceedingly keen for me to read it.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

One track mind

I found Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in my brother's room recently.
The title piqued my interest at the start, then I saw it was written by a Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Anyone who has chatted to me in the past 12 months knows of my love for that place from my visit there last year - and so I thought I'd give it a go.

As it turns out, Murakami is one of the most celebrated Japanese authors world-wide, and coincidentally, my uncle's PhD thesis was a cultural analysis of Murakami's works.

I was not disappointed.

The novel starts with two storylines - one set in contemporary Tokyo, in which the narrator is a Calcutec. A Calcutec's job is to work for Headquarters, a company which is linked but not part of the Government, and basically involves information processing.
The narrator reads information, shuffles it using the right and left sides of his brain, and then interprets the info.

The second story involves the first-person narrator arriving at a mytholgocial world with unicorns and gatekeepers and the like. When he arrives at the world, the gatekeeper removes his shadow from him "because that's what happens" and we watch as the narrator gradually loses his mind because of it.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds is brilliant, and serves to highlight the running theme throughout the book, which focuses on the mind and its limitations, or lack thereof.

"Your body dies, your consciousness passes away, but your thought is caught in the one tautological point an instant before, subdividing for an eternity. Think about the koan: An arrow is stopped in flight. Well, the death of the body is the flight of the arrow. It's making a straight line for the brain. No dodging it, not for anyone. People have to die, the body has to fall. Time is hurtling that arrow forward. And yet, like I was saying, thought goes on subdividing that time for ever and ever. The paradox becomes real. The arrow never hits."

The idea that the mind continues infinitely in death is an interesting one.

In all, this book is much easier to read than it is to review. However the two storylines link up beautifully by the end of the book, and I have to say it is one of the most rewarding reads I have had in quite some time.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Beautiful Losers

"[F[ind a little saint and fuck her over and over in some pleasant part of heaven, get right into her plastic altar, dwell in her silver medal, fuck her until she tinkles like a souvenir music box, until the memorial lights go on for free, find a little saintly faker like Teresa or Catherine Tekakwitha or Lesbia, whom prick never knew but who lay around all day in a chocolate poem, find one of those quant impossible cunts and fuck her for your life, coming all over the sky, fuck her on the moon with a steel hourglass up your hole, get tangled up in her airy robes, suck her nothing juices, lap, lap, lap, a dog in the ether, then climb down to this fat earth and slouch around the fat earth in your stone shoes, get clobbered by a runaway target, take the sensless blows again and again, a right to the mind, piledriver on the heart, kick in the scrotum, help! help! It's my time, my second, my splinter of the shit glory tree, police, firemen! look at the traffic of happiness and crime, it's burning in crayon like the akropoliss rose!"
I have just finished reading Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and um, for reasons which may or may not be clear upon reading the above extract, I'm not entirely sure what to think.

I didn't know anything about the book coming into it and I think that's probably a good way to tackle it, although it certainly makes for some surprising and occassionally shocking reading.
The novel centres on a reasonably twisted sort of love triangle between the narrator (who spends most of his spare time wanking into a sock and thinking about dead people when he's not obsessing about long, long dead Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha (who happens to be my confirmation saint, just in case you wanted to know)), his dead wife (whose method of suicide was um... more disturbing than most) and his dead lover/friend, referred to only as 'F'.
The experimental, part Joyecian (Joycian?), part not-writing-just-typing style definitely plays to Cohen's strengths as a lyricist-poet and just about every page is studded with a nice turn of phrase ("what makes the mountainside of maple turn red?") that bears a second read. He has a knack for putting words together. The girl who "lay around all day in a chocolate poem" for instance is a phrase that will stick in my mind.

Buuut the book is by no means perfect. The monologues can turn into rambles. The poetry can turn into a big fat mud pit. Every so often there are a few pages in a row that read as though they were written while Cohen was quite mind blowingly high. Which he may well have been but which doesn't necessarily make for interesting writing.

Even so this book is interesting. And mildly disturbing. And fascinating. And frustrating. I lingered for awhile on certain pages and skipped over others altogether. Every so often I had to put the book down just to get another glass of wine or focus on something else that didn't involve reading about a 13-year-old girl's arse. But, faults and obstacles aside, I do feel like it's rather crept into my mind a little bit, which is just about as much as you can ask from a book some of the time.