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Monday, 29 December 2014

End of Times (Well, this year anyway...)








By the end of the year all the words just pile up, so there’s a need to assess the situation so we can all move on. Looking back I note that my reading this year was reasonably eclectic, but unfortunately not always satisfying. Thankfully there weren’t any books read that were as noxiously offensive as the infamous Finkler Question (I will not even reference it - you just don’t want to know...); but probably the least worthy was Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. That was a book club read, so I had no choice in the matter - the things I do! Enforced reading has its benefits however, with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites proving to be one of the best novels I have ever read, and that’s no mean feat. Other highlights include The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, J.G.Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories, Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and Annabel Smith’s The Ark, which achieves that rare feat of pushing at the boundaries of the novel.

Do I have any New Year’s resolutions? No - I just want to read.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Owls Do Cry - Janet Frame (1957)








Those who are familiar with Jane Champion’s film - An Angel at My Table (1990), would have an awareness of both the hardships and the triumphs of Frame’s life. Owls Do Cry was her first novel and like her admirers work, Patrick White, it is a fine example of high modernism. The style is organic; words tumble along with allusive child-like poetic imagery. It is quite beautiful, but can present a challenge to those unfamiliar with modernist forms bending narratives. Owls Do Cry follows the fortunes of the Withers family, including Daphne, whom is modeled on Frame’s own experiences (although in interviews Frame advised against seeing her work as autobiographical). There is also pointed social satire; revealing New Zealand’s growing middle class to be shallow and hypocritical. The novel is profoundly sad and left me feeling bereft and slightly adrift. I admired the writing but did not enjoy the overall experience; it felt like I was being forced to confront some deep inner core of melancholy. Tackle Owls Do Cry when you are feeling robust and adventurous, otherwise it could turn out to be an emotionally draining experience.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)








I wonder if Charles Belfoure is the only architect to have ever written a novel in which the main protagonist is an architect? It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster, but to give Belfoure credit the outcome does have its merits. In Nazi occupied Paris architect Lucien Bernard is offered much needed money to design hiding places for Jews by a rich Jewish industrialist. Lucien is a reasonably well drawn character who initially has little sympathy for the Jews, but then undergoes a moral transformation.  Although it is no great literary triumph The Paris Architect is an old fashioned pot-boiler that does produce some genuine narrative tension. However many of the German characters are one dimensional evil Nazis and there is an improbable feel good ending that you can’t help liking despite its cheesiness. Against the odds the novel draws you in and although Sacred Hearts (2009) was a much better written novel I enjoyed The Paris Architect much more, although some of my book club members would disagree. Read this one on the train, or propped up on your sick-bed when you can’t bear too much intellectual strain!

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Ark - Annabel Smith (2014)








Annabel Smith is a Perth based author who has followed her two previous books, A New Map of the Universe (2005) and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (2012) with The Ark, an edgy post apocalyptic novel set in the near future. The Ark is a radical departure for Smith; it is both available as a traditional print book and digitally as an ebook with the option to use an APP that allows the reader to interact and contribute to the world depicted in the book. In addition the novel experiments boldly with form and style. Clearly this is a novel with one eye set on the future.

Sometimes experiments with narrative form can detract from the story, but fortunately with The Ark Smith has blended form and plot seamlessly. The novel is set in two parts, the first set in 2041 and the second in 2043. The ark itself is a state of the art seed bank in which a small group of biologists and their families have taken shelter from a world in the throws of a post peak oil chaos, leaving the natural environment ruined. The Ark could be a typical post-apocalyptic novel, but the fact that the narrative form predominantly consists of electronic media of the near future provides a new and engaging angle. The characters communicate with both the outside world and each other using various future mediums such as Gopher, Dailemail, parlez-vite vitality (like a chat room), and Articulate, which is a voice recognition technology.

The real strength of The Ark is the fact that Smith has created compelling characters whom are both complex and sympathetic, despite using few of the usual narrative techniques to build character. The dialogue is entirely electronic, complete with fonts and software frameworks used by the various mediums. There is no authorial voice and none of the traditional methods are used to give the reader an idea of the settings, with the only descriptions coming from what the characters are saying to each other. The narrative is completely carried by character perspective, with some sections dedicated to specific characters.

Smith has taken some great risks with The Ark, but thanks to quality writing and a strong plot she has succeeded admirably. Also intentionally or not The Ark says something deeply profound about humanity and the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The Ark is an intriguing novel that offers something new in a market crowded with future dystopias and hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.

Annabel Smith’s website can be accessed here for more information about the novel, the APP and the world of The Ark.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook - Charles Bukowski (2008)









So what do you do when you are feeling oppressed by nuns and sick to your stomach? Read some Bukowski, that’s what. It was a no brainer reaching for this, the first of two recent volumes of previously uncollected short pieces, including some from his infamous “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns and other rare Bukowski miscellany. Bukowski’s writing makes you feel better, it soothes the rough edges of life and gives you a smelly beer-soaked hug and a cuff around the ear for daring to have any pretenses. Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook covers all the Bukowski bases, from musings over the stupidity and cruelty of humanity, to the greatness, or not, of other writers, drunkenness, perverted sex, John Fante, women, assorted lowlifes, tragedy, bathos and pathos - sometimes all at once. Although a fine Bukowski collection, it is not quite up to the standard of Absence of the Hero (2010) and some of the pieces are bordering on substandard for Bukowski. Still, it’s well worth a read for Bukowski enthusiasts; others should start with the immortal novels, Post Office (1971) and Women (1978).

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant (2009)







Sacred Hearts is historical fiction set in a convent in Ferrara in sixteenth century Italy. Medieval political intrigue melds with the rigors of convent living as the narrative follows the struggles of a rebellious fifteen-year-old novice called Serafina and the egregious demands this places on the Abbess and the apothecary, Zuana, whom is also the most engaging character. Read for the library book club whilst under the influence of various viral invasions (yes, they were medieval on my ass, so to speak), this novel did not sit well with me. Dunant’s prose style is merely adequate, bordering on dull.  Although the historical aspects were reasonably interesting, it was not enough to sustain my attention and provide a counterbalance against the moribund narrative pace, the endless whispered prayers, the smoothing down of habits and acts of god caused by termites. I’ll remember Sacred Hearts as book club fodder and although it has its appeal for some readers I struggled, which forces my hand into giving the novel a mediocre rating.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Weary Narrative








Like a good book life can be complex and demanding and sometimes it can be very wearing indeed. It's been a winter's end blighted by disease and after five weeks with various illnesses I find myself slowed down to a crawl with something akin to post viral fatigue; so I've decided to par back my life in order to rest and that includes sitting in front of a computer screen in excess of what I already have to do at work. I've decided that at least till the end of the year I'm going to write one paragraph about each book I read, to both help me recuperate and to refresh my attitude. Hopefully it will be a great paragraph though!

My malaise has also led me to the decision that once I start writing more I'm going to focus on fiction rather than the blog, for a while at least. Unlike Mr Charles Bukowski (above) after he quit working at the post office, I don't have that much time to write, so once I start to feel better I'm going to concentrate on some short stories that have been percolating for while. Now, time to rest...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl (1976)








Frederik Pohl is a science fiction great who published work between 1937 and 2011 before he passed away in 2013. Pohl won multiple awards, including the Nebula Award for Man Plus. He followed that up with a Hugo and a Nebula in 1977 for Gateway. Man Plus features a brilliant premise in which a human, Roger Torraway, is biologically engineered to live on Mars unaided by a suit or breathing equipment. Such a premise enabled Pohl to explore the outer limits of technology and the future of space travel. Although we are no where near developing cyborgs, humanity is beginning to take significant steps in space and there is a real sense of urgency, with the Mars One project and the likes of Steven Hawking warning that humans must become a multi-planet species in order to avoid extinction.

Although Pohl is clever enough not to be specific, Man Plus is set in what appears to be an early twenty first century future. Things are typically going badly for humanity, although forays into space have become common enough for there to have been a number of manned missions to Mars. Tensions are high between the Earth’s most powerful countries - America and China, and natural resources have become scarce. Computer modeling indicates that the extinction of humanity is probable and this spurs America to develop the Man Plus program that will enable humans to live on Mars. After the death of the first “monster” Roger Torraway becomes the cyborg savior of humanity (now there’s a headline I’d love to see...).
 

Ostensibly Man Plus is about the colonization of Mars, but perhaps the most significant theme is humanity’s relationship with technology. Cyborgs are a common science fiction trope, but Pohl’s treatment is uniquely visceral. Torraway is an everyman astronaut whose fallible humanity makes his transformation into a monstrous cyborg profoundly affecting. The horror of what the surgeons do to his body is palpable because Pohl succeeds in making a fairly improbable near future biotechnology believable. Torraway effectively becomes a Martian demon with superhuman strength and augmented senses. The sequences in which he is testing his new found senses are almost psychedelic in nature; it would have thoroughly entertained all those mid seventies acid-heads.

The great strength of Man Plus is the portrayal of a man who no longer recognizes himself as human, yet is still governed by human psychology. There is a brilliant sequence in which Torraway, desperate to see his wife, escapes the desert complex he’s sequestered in and appears in the bedroom of his home. The interaction between Dorrie and Torraway perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the ‘uncanny valley’ not that long after the concept was invented. Pohl also manipulates the reader into both enjoying the spectacle of Torraway as cyborg monster and engaging emotionally with the tragedy of his lost humanity.

Pohl’s writing style is now perhaps a touch old fashioned and the fact that the story is told in hindsight means that some narrative tension is sacrificed. To Pohl’s credit the hard science of travelling and surviving on Mars in Man Plus is believable. When the expedition finally makes it to Mars what transpires is exciting and intriguing. As with many of the great science fiction novels there is a twist. Perhaps I’ve read a few too many as I guessed what was happening about two thirds of the way through, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in the end. There is a 1994 sequel called Mar’s Plus for those curious as to what happened next; isn’t that the essence of science fiction, the question of what happens next? Although improbable in some aspects, Man Plus captures the sense of what it must be like to be on the cutting edge of what is scientifically possible; something that the participants of the Mars One project must be familiar with. They may not be about to be transformed into cyborg Martian freaks, but if they succeed it will transform humanity in ways that perhaps we have yet to imagine.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Complete Short Stories - J.G.Ballard (2001)





As a teenager in the 1980’s J.G. Ballard was a name that had been dropped by some musicians I admired, such as Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Dutifully I went out and bought Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). I was ill prepared for Ballard’s psycho sexual narrative about a character with an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. I haven’t read it again since, but it has certainly stayed with me. Ballard is a unique writer who is not easily pigeonholed into a specific genre; some of his short stories can by recognized as science fiction, but the majority are distinctively his own voice. This is the definitive collection, with 96 stories across 1184 pages and like Crash, most of them are now nestled in my subconscious, destined to emerge and take flight like the sand-rays that populate Vermillion Sands.

The stories set in Vermillion Sands, a surreal coastal desert-scape dotted with settlements, are perhaps Ballard’s most impressive short stories. Ballard wrote the Vermillion Sands stories between 1956 and 1970. This collection opens with one of his first published stories, Prima Belladonna (1956), which is set in Vermillion Sands. The Vermillion Sands stories are populated by listless, often psychologically intense protagonists who encounter other characters that are eccentric, or are involved in surreal and intense situations. These stories contain some of Ballard’s best imagistic prose. Vermillion Sands itself is a desert dream-scape; an environment of the subconscious that compliments the intense psychology of many of the adventurers, drifters and artists staying there. The desert of Vermillion Sands features sonic sculptures, rocks that grow and emit sounds when influenced by people or the environment around them. They feature heavily in Venus Smiles (1957) and The Singing Statues (1962), but appear in most of the other Vermillion Sands stories. Perhaps my favourite of these stories is Cry Hope, Cry Fury (1966), which features typically psychologically fraught characters creating paintings that are made with photosensitive paint that interprets an image of the sitter over many days. As with all the Vermillion Sand stories, the blend of weird technology and intense psychology is spellbinding.

In Ballard’s brief one page introduction he states that “Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject.” He goes on to say that “...there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Such a statement is, of course, debatable, but a great percentage of these collected stories are either perfect, near perfect or at least satisfyingly thought provoking. It is fascinating to witness Ballard’s development across thirty six years of short story writing. There is an evolution of style and ideas across the decades, but perhaps what is most interesting is what they have in common. The complexity of the human psyche held a strong fascination for Ballard. Many of the stories have significant psychological themes, such as My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974), in which the protagonist, Melville, is obsessed with digging up wrecked WWII planes from coastal sand dunes and flying to Wake island in the Pacific, which is a near impossible journey. The story is a representation of a mental state, rather than having a plot with a traditional narrative arc, which is the case with many of these short stories. Minus One (1963) is particularly brilliant; set in Green Hill Asylum, the asylum’s director decides to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of an escaped inmate by concluding that he didn’t actually exist and that he was the result of a mass delusion by the asylum staff. The ultimate problem this creates results in a darkly humorous and disturbing ending.

The environment, both natural and built, and how it can influence humans psychologically features strongly in Ballard’s work. I’ve been reliably informed by a work colleague that the correct term for this is psycho-geography. The coastal desert-scape of the Vermillion Sands stories certainly fits that description. Ballard’s infamous experimental story, The Terminal Beach (1964) best represents this theme. A man called Traven lives on an island entirely given over to the machinery of war and nuclear testing; an island that is “...synthetic, a man made artifact...” The synthetic island that Traven lives on is a manifestation of the post war human psyche. It makes for disturbing reading and its effect on the reader is almost subliminal. The psycho-geography theme is taken even further in the 1976 story, The Ultimate City, which is set in a future where fossil fuels have run out and most people live in self sustaining rural settlements. Ballard’s protagonist, Halloway, ends up back in a deserted city much like New York and gets caught up in a quest to bring back a portion of the city to how it was before everything changed. It gradually becomes apparent that the transition in Halloway’s psyche is a direct result of the built environment, shifting the story from a post apocalyptic adventure into a dark satire on the subtle terrors of modern life.

Ultimately this collection is a tribute to the brilliant sensibility of J.G. Ballard, which has been appropriately labelled ‘Ballardian.’ Ballard’s almost genre-less stories are a world unto themselves and throb with a singular luminous intensity that is wholly satisfying. Ballard’s style is literary, experimental, erudite and at times darkly satirical. The scope of Ballard’s writing is overwhelming, however many of these stories can be found in smaller collections, which might be a good place to start for the Ballardian novice. The Vermillion Sands stories have been collected in an eponymously titled publication that was first released in 1971, but has been republished many times since. The Vermillion Sands stories are addictive and to paraphrase the late William Burroughs, they give you a literary high; read them and I can guarantee that you’ll be ready to move on to this collection.





Image: An analogue to Vermillion Sands and the singing sculptures? The Pinnacles, just north of Perth.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent (2013)



The axe and block used to behead Agnes Magnúsdóttir

I’ll get straight to the point: Hannah Kent has written the best debut novel I have ever read. Burial Rites is a superlative piece of historical fiction that was inspired by a year long stay as an exchange student in northern Iceland when Kent was just 17 in 2002. While she was out with her host family she asked about the significance of a valley they were driving through and they pointed out a cluster of three hills and told her about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Nearly ten years later Kent chose the story of Agnes as the subject for the novel she would write for her PHD.

Burial Rites is an intensely emotional and psychological document of an obscure event in the history of Iceland that displays Kent’s ability to write complex and nuanced characters. Agnes, a morally ambiguous and complex character is central to Burial Rites, however all of the other characters are also brilliantly realised, giving the novel great depth. After her trial Agnes is removed from a makeshift prison and is taken to the home of the Jonsson family to wait out her last days. The Jonsson family are torn between duty to state bureaucracy, in the form of the pompous and stern Blondal, and their fear of the murderess in their midst. Charged as the savoir of her soul, the youthful priest Toti is at first tested by Agnes’ request that he help her through her last days, but is then dedicated to her beyond the call of his religious duty. The relationship between Toti and Agnes allows the story of Agnes’ life to be revealed at a natural pace, making it a brilliantly subtle narrative device to generate tension. The Jonsson daughters, Steina and Lauga, are divided in  their reactions to Agnes’ presence. Their mother, Margret, is initially distrustful, yet the presence of Agnes ends up bringing out the best in her. There is a particularly poignant scene in which the two women share a late night hot milk whilst Agnes tells of the events that led her to her fate. Agnes and Margaret are powerfully complex female characters that are so real and vital that you feel like you’ve shared many months with them in their badstofa, the Icelandic communal living and sleeping space used during that era.


The fact that Kent had lived in the area for a year and had then conducted six weeks of research to uncover the available records concerning the murders Agnes was involved in no doubt significantly helped her write such a quality novel. Letters and documents from the era feature throughout the novel, giving a harsh bureaucratic contrast to the tragic events and their aftermath. Such details give Burial Rites some historical credence, but it is the brilliance of Kent’s prose that really stands out. Kent’s prose style is beautifully poised and pared back; there’s nothing excessive and nor is there anything wasted. The bleak landscape of Iceland is unavoidable, yet not once does Kent overdo it with florid adjectives; nor does she waste the metaphorical power of the Icelandic environment. Her descriptive powers are such that the reader is right there with the characters, trudging through the alien landscape and huddling in the badstofa on freezing cold nights. Kent also generates compelling narrative tension by contrasting her third person omniscient narrative with sections in Agnes’ profoundly authentic first person voice.

Ultimately Burial Rites acts as an affirmation of the worth of historical fiction. Historians have been known to be suspicious of historical fiction, worried that authors distort facts and invent persons or situations that never occurred, giving readers a false impression of important historical events. Historians do have a valid point and I’m sure that some historical fiction does lead to inaccurate assumptions about the past; however a novel like Burial Rites brings alive the past, allowing readers to experience what it might have been like to be alive in an otherwise unknowable past. Kent has done us a great service, as it is unlikely that most people outside of Iceland would have ever known about Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Read Burial Rites and you will know exactly what it would be like to live through your last hours knowing that your head was going to be removed by an axe on top of a lonely Icelandic hill in the depths of a nineteenth century winter. The last chapter of Burial Rites is one of the most chilling and emotionally intense endings to a novel I have ever read and it will stay with me for a long time to come.


Endnote: Recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been harsh in my assessments of some of the books I’ve read recently, having given amazing books my second highest rating of excellent. After reading Burial Rites I find that I was correct in my judgements. Burial Rites deserves the sublime rating. It is the best literary historical fiction novel I have ever read, and that includes Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (2009).

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan (1996)






Carl Sagan was one of a select group of scientists who could successfully communicate complex scientific notions to laypersons. Sagan was an important cosmologist and astrophysicist, but it is his popular science books and documentary television series Cosmos (1980) that will be remembered by the general population. The Demon Haunted World was his last published work before his untimely death in 1996. I remember that my reaction to his death was one of sadness and but also of appreciation. Sagan achieved a great deal while he was alive and in doing so influenced me greatly in my outlook on life and my understanding of the universe.

In the preface to The Demon Haunted World, entitled ‘My teachers’, Sagan talks about how much his parents taught and encouraged him even though they were laypeople with no knowledge of science. They supported his dream to be an astronomer and inspired him with their down to earth skepticism and sense of wonder. Sagan did a similar thing for me when I watched Cosmos at the impressionable age of ten. Cosmos inspired me and nurtured my fascination with astronomy and the world around me, something that, like Sagan, was supported by my parents. In the latter chapters of The Demon Haunted World Sagan talks about the importance of not only education, but of having books in the home; something that is essential to providing that ‘candle in the dark’, keeping spurious pseudo-science and superstition at bay. As a librarian I greatly appreciate Sagan’s stance. As a society we must never lose sight of the importance of providing egalitarian access to books and information, in particular for the young.

Throughout the main body of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s debunking of pseudoscience is eloquent and, for the most part, compelling. Many of the initial chapters concentrate on UFOs and alien abduction; in particular the typical UFO stories and the so called face of Mars. The publication of The Demon Haunted World coincided with the era of The X-Files and a plethora of pre-millennial conspiracy theories. Once again there is a personal connection here for me, having been a UFO and alien obsessive during my childhood in the 1970‘s. Spurred on by UFO and alien books and classic 1970’s movies such as E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001 A Space Odyssey, like Mulder I wanted to believe. I even had my own strong memory of seeing a large white cigar shaped UFO hovering over my neighbor’s backyard that I’m sure was real, but would have just been a dream (I dreamt about UFO’s constantly). Curiously one of the scientific explanations for alien visitations and abductions that Sagan puts forward is sleep paralysis, something I experienced during my teenage years, although I didn’t see aliens (what I did see is another story).

The Demon Haunted World is a fascinating read, but can also be a sobering one. Sagan’s passionate argument for a better educated population is profound  and important. Sagan reminds us that it is essential to know something of logic and science (amongst other subjects) in order to make sound decisions. Unfortunately the statistics Sagan quotes regarding knowledge, beliefs and education in his home country of America is truly appalling. Only 9% of Americans accept that humans evolved; half of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun in a year and 63 % of American adults think that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. These statistics are from the 1990’s; would they have improved in the last twenty years or so? Unfortunately I doubt it.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s argument against blind belief and pseudo-science is more important than ever. When it comes to the pressing issue of climate change humanity is at the crossroads and climate change deniers around the world, including the Abbott led conservative government here in Australia (perhaps the worst offenders of all), could benefit from reading this book. Science is under attack more than ever by non-scientists with dubious agendas and flawed belief systems who portray science and scientists as untrustworthy. The great irony, as Sagan shows, is that scientists go to extreme lengths to make sure that their findings are as accurate as they can possibly be and therefore, by extension, their conclusions too. When it comes to climate change it seems that we still do live in a demon haunted world. 

Finally, perhaps the best thing about reading The Demon Haunted World was discovering that Sagan and I shared a very similar outlook toward science. Sagan states early on that: “In its encounter with nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.” Science and a sense of wonder, even a sense of mysticism, are not mutually exclusive. Science is not merely cold reductionism, but provides a deep understanding of the magnificence of the cosmos and therefore of human existence itself.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

All the Birds, Singing - Evie Wyld (2013)








The day after I finished Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing it was announced that the novel had won the coveted Miles Franklin Award. I had been reading the novel for the library book club and I wondered what the members would make of both the book and the fact that it had won the prize. I must admit that the novel left me cold. It also made me, once again, ponder the nature of awards and how judges decide that a particular novel deserves to win; just how much of the decision making is based on objective criteria and how much is subjective opinion?

All the Birds, Singing
is a dark tale that explores trauma and its aftermath. Protagonist Jake Whyte (no, not Jack White) is a young woman who is basically just trying to survive. All the Birds, Singing tells Jake’s tale of woe via alternate chapters, with one stream set on an island off the coast of the United Kingdom that moves forward in time and the other set in Western Australia that moves backwards in time, ultimately taking the reader back to the source of Jake’s trauma. This fragmented structure allows Wyld to build tension by drip-feeding information about Jake and her past. In the chapters set on the island Jake runs a sheep farm and some of her sheep are being mysteriously killed by something or someone lurking in the surrounding woods. The palpable sense of horror generated by the mystery of the sheep killings has psychological parallels in the chapters set in Australia, with the mystery of the traumatic horrors of Jake’s past.

Unfortunately Wyld’s ability to generate genuine suspense is undermined by Jake’s one dimensional presence throughout the narrative. This is, ironically, due to Wyld's use of fragmented structure, which keeps Jake trapped in her traumatized funk for most of the novel. After a while this state of suspension become an irritant. The fact that I did not warm to Jake at all meant that I found it difficult to connect with the novel and when I did it was only for fleeting periods. When discussing All the Birds, Singing with my fellow book club members I discovered that I’d entirely missed various subtexts lurking in the plot. I just wasn’t motivated enough to notice. Also I realised that despite The Luminaries (2013) being over 800 pages long I had not once thought to myself ‘when is this going to end?’ I found myself doing this many times whilst reading All the Birds, Singing, despite the fact that it is at least a third smaller.

Half of the thirty book club members hated the novel and the other half enjoyed it, but thought that it was an average example of literary fiction; I was somewhere in-between. Despite many being disappointed with the ending, which to some was open-ended and overly ambiguous, I felt that it was poignant and pointed towards redemption for both Jake and the mysterious Lloyd, a sympathetic character who had turned up on her farm with his own murky past to deal with. So the novel is not without its merits, but should it have won the Miles Franklin award, beating the likes of Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan and Alexis Wright? Perhaps it was the fusion of form and theme that appealed to the judges, or the portrayal of a female character who was both strong and damaged. When it comes to assessing the short listed novels how much objectivity comes into play? How subjective are the judges allowed to be? That’s something I’d love to know. If I were a judge I would have concluded that All the Birds, Singing was not good enough in both objective and subjective terms to win the award. Sorry Evie, I know you would have worked hard on All the Birds, Singing, but in the end all I can say is that it just wasn’t for me.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

501 Must Read Books - Emma Beare [editor] (2007)





When you love books there is perhaps nothing better than a book about books, which is just about as meta as you can get. I’ve been reading a number of different books lately that are taking some time to get through because they are either massive tomes, or are time consuming non-fiction. 501 Must Read Books is one I’ve been dipping in and out of lately and not only is it a beautiful book to hold and behold, it is also a superb guide to all things bibliographic.

Most book enthusiasts would have at least seen 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006). Well 501 Must Read Books is far superior; for a start it has a better title. I’ve always found the 1001 title concept to be very off putting, cliched and slightly condescending. The former book comprises almost entirely of fiction arranged chronologically both in sections according to era and then by the year the books were published. There are some impressive novels amongst them, but the selections are mostly predictable with a smattering of obscurities to pique the interest of bibliophiles. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is by no means a worthless guide to fiction, but 501 Must Read Books has so much more going for it in terms of layout and book selection.



501 Must Read Books arranges the books by genre, including children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers and travel writing. Throughout these sections there are well written reviews that contain biographical information about the author, the book’s cultural context and impact and detail about the book’s literary significance. There are brilliant photographs throughout and plentiful reproductions of original cover art. Each book featured also has an extra list of the author’s other significant works, which is very handy.

Whilst 501 Must Read Books contains acknowledged greats such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), there are many obscure treasures (to me at least), which is what you really want and expect from a book like this. On the same page as Herzog there is the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker, all published in 1991. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road explore homosexuality in WWI Britain and involves Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. A few pages before that there is Russian author Isaak Babel’s Tales of Odessa, published in 1916. Tales of Odessa is a series of joined novellas exploring life in Jewish ghettos. The review mentions that Babel is one of the greatest short story writers of all time, which is news to me. One of the great things about 501 Must Read Books is that it features many non English novels, such as Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1966) and West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).



A good test of this book for me is the science fiction section, which is a genre I know a great deal about. There are some notable absences, such as any of Iain M. Banks novels, in fact there are no Iain Banks novels in the modern literature section either - what were they thinking? Despite this the selection of science fiction novels is a fine one, with well known works such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) making an appearance.  However it is the less well known I’m impressed with, such as Curt Siodmak’s Donvan’s Brain (1942) and Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), both of which are new to me and sound excellent. This section is also a great reminder of novels I’ve been meaning to read, such as the great Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962). 



Overall there’s much to recommend about 501 Must Read Books. It is in many ways a quality alternative to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Its series of genre sections is its great strength, providing a great guide for those who would like to move away from just reading novels. The memoir and travel writing sections are enticing for me for these very reasons. When there is a guide book about which are the best book guide books, 501 Must Read Books will definitely feature, in fact maybe that’s a section it could add for its own future editions, how meta would that be!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Rachel Papers - Martin Amis (1973)








It was about time, I decided, that I paid some attention to the work of Martin Amis. After all he’s a significant figure in literature; named one the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, son of the late Kingsley Amis, friend of the late Christopher Hitchens and writer of lauded novels and non-fiction. Just as well I’d bought The Rachel Papers a few years ago when I was spending money on novels in an irresponsible fashion. In any case, it’s always good to be prepared, and fortunately Amis did not let me down.

The Rachel Papers
happens to be Martin Amis’s first novel and features the first person musings of nineteen year old protagonist Charles Highway. Charles is a perfect summation of what it is like to to nineteen: gross, arrogant and horny, very horny. Charles is on the verge of possibly entering Oxford to study literature. He’s also the writer of copious narcissistic tracts about his life, which includes the Rachel papers. This never ending document details just how Charles will win Rachel over and therefore have his way with an older woman (although Rachel is barely older than Charles) before he turns twenty and leaves behind his teenage years forever. Charles is an easy character to warm to due to his witty and engaging observations of, amongst other subjects, the British class system. Also The Rachel Papers has a narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend, which is very entertaining indeed.

The Rachel Papers reveals a late teenage mind that is obsessed with not only girls, but also gross bodily functions. There is a great deal of detail about various bodily fluids, including descriptions of of what he hacks out of his bronchial lungs and his battles with massive pimples. Although there is plenty of juvenile humour to be had throughout the novel, The Rachel Papers is much more than it initially seems. The novel presents three significant relationship stages: the youthful and lustful first flush of love in the the form of Charles and Rachel, the problematic middle stages in the form of Highway’s sister - Jennifer and her husband - the proudly lower class Norman, and finally there is the passionless endgame of Highway’s parents. The nature of these relationships provides a clever subtext beneath the grotesque that results in a life lesson for Charles Highway which, in the end, cuts through his adolescent anger at his father and his own indulgent narcissistic tendencies.

There are also some literary themes at play, with Highway constantly referencing literary greats such as William Blake and innumerable British poets. It is no coincidence that Highway is attempting to gain entry into Oxford, as it provides Amis with an opportunity to satirize the British education system. Highway is also endlessly taking notes and working on his epically bitter ‘Letter to my Father’ which ironically, it seems to me, is a letter to his future self. It’s tempting to see Amis and his father within this strained relationship. Amis has admitted that Charles is partly based on his youthful self. There’s certainly a cutting self awareness to the narrative, as well as being absolutely hilarious and unashamedly male. Amis also manages to pull off the best sex scene I’ve ever read, which is unflinching in its realism without being cringe-worthy. The novel ends with some of the coldest closing lines I’ve ever read, the kind that only a very brave writer could produce.


Upon finishing The Rachel Papers I began to miss it like an old friend who I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. As a result I’m now a total fan of Martin Amis and I intend to read the rest of his bibliography in order of publication. Amis has been a controversial writer over the years, one who’s raised the ire of many conservative commentators in Great Britain. Over the years his friend Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Amis, something I’m willing to take on now that Hitchens is dead. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek of course, however it is apparent that The Rachel Papers is an easy target for accusations of misogyny. In its defense I have to say that the novel is not necessarily misogynistic in nature; it is much more accurate to view it in anthropological terms. Amis shows that there is a certain confidence in a young man’s stride, but unfortunately there is also an unresolvable duality at the heart of the male psyche that perhaps few woman (and men) will ever come to terms with.


Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton (2013)








By now most avid readers would know at least something about Eleanor Catton’s mammoth Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries. Catton is the youngest writer to ever win the award and at 830 pages it is also the longest winning novel. The Luminaries is set in the 1860’s on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand during that era’s gold rushes. It is a complex novel, with a large ensemble of characters coupled with an innovative structure. These attributes may put many potential readers off, but rest assured The Luminaries is well worth reading.

The Luminaries
is such a long and complex novel that it is futile to try and describe its plot and structure in any great detail. Perhaps uniquely the novel manages to be both backward looking and innovative at the same time. Catton writes in the Victorian narrative style used by many authors at the time in which the novel is set; however the novel’s structure is a modern contrivance built around the signs of the zodiac and the movements of the planets. Twelve of the characters are associated with the zodiac and are assigned to the Stellar section of the character chart at the beginning of the novel. Another eight are in the Planetary section and are given related influences such as reason, desire and force. The first chapter, entitled ‘A sphere within a Sphere,’ is as long as an average book (360 pages) and like the cycle of the moon, each successive chapter wanes until the final group of chapters are only a few pages long. Fortunately due to the novel’s other quality attributes the reader can get by without paying much attention to its convoluted form, which is something that I mostly chose to do.

One of The Luminaries great strengths is Catton’s ability to write believable characters that live and breath on the page. When coupled with the mysteries at the novel’s core, it makes for strangely compelling reading. I say strangely compelling because at one point it occurred to me that despite the novel’s slow moving narrative, fragmentation and complexity, I found myself completely drawn into the world inhabited by the characters and the mysteries they were grappling with. This is masterful story-telling coupled with beautiful writing and it is no wonder the judges of the Man Booker awarded the prize to The Luminaries.

Considering the amount of research and planning that must have gone into writing the novel, winning the Man Booker Prize is a just reward for Catton. It is, however, a novel that requires intense focus on the part of the reader. Fragmented across time and told from multiple perspectives over a complex narrative structure, it demands a certain level of commitment. After I finished The Luminaries I wondered what the average reader would make of its conventions and pretensions? My book club members, for example, mostly appreciated the novel, even if they didn’t all necessarily enjoy it. As serendipity would have it at the same time a work college referred me to an essay called The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real), written by Will Self, in which he discusses the decline of not just what he calls the paper oriented ‘Gutenberg mind,’ (as opposed to the digital mind - my words, not his) but also of the novel as a living medium (it’s a zombie art form, moribund since Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake (1939) according to Self) and in particular the ‘difficult novel.’ Self puts forward that the novel as an important medium is in terminal decline and serious literature will become the domain of the minority, both in terms of authors and readers. Is a novel such as The Luminaries a way forward, or merely the last gasp of a zombie art form with declining readership? Do people want to read novels like The Luminaries any more, or is it just going to be vampire romance and about a million shades of grey?

Such questions once again bring to bear the worth of prizes such as the Man Booker. No doubt there has been huge sales of The Luminaries since it won the coveted prize, but just how many of them would have been read all the way through? Is the Man Booker making things worse by rewarding a difficult novel that may be unpalatable to most readers? Or will it inspire people to reach beyond their comfort zone and help keep alive one of the most important cultural artifacts humans have ever devised? Personally I thoroughly enjoyed The Luminaries and am confident that the so called difficult novel has a bright future beyond this era of wizards, vampires and all those shades of grey. I believe that there will always be enough people intent on exploring the limits of literature and be willing to go beyond their comfort zones. As the demands on our time is taken up by more and more frivolous digital pursuits I believe that serious literature will come to be appreciated much more readily as an antidote to cultural superficiality. Self may be pessimistic about the future of the novel, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a spent cultural force just yet. If you are one of those people who put aside The Luminaries after a few hundred pages then prove Will Self wrong by picking it up again; you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Ghostopolis - Doug Tennapel (2010)







One of the advantages of working in a library is being able access a whole range of media I’d not normally encounter on an every day basis. When I saw Ghostopolis handed back at the returns counter I was immediately attracted to the cover artwork and the concept. I grew up in the 1970‘s reading comics; buying them for 0.10c each at the local second-hand book store across the road from Boans department store in Bunbury (now those were the days). It was time, I thought, to channel the past and read something different.

The premise of Ghostopolis is simple: ghosts are real and Frank Gallows, as a suitably disheveled anti-hero, is employed by the Supernatural Immigration Task Force to track down wayward ghosts and send them back to the afterworld. Due to unfortunate circumstances involving a wayward nightmare horse skeleton Gallows sends teenager Garth Hales into the afterlife, namely Ghostopolis. Ghostopolis is ruled by a suitably evil character named Vaugner, and is populated by mummies, skeletons (ruled by the noble Bone king), will o wisps, specters, zombies, boogymen and goblins. Ghostopolis is a brilliantly rendered freaky supernatural world. The artwork is superb, the colours and shadings are beautiful; a fine example is the eerie gloaming of a werewolf’s tea house. That’s right, a werewolf’s tea house; owned by a creaky old werewolf obsessed with tea who freaks out when Gallows dares to say that he’s “More of a coffee guy.” 










Aside from the brilliant artwork, it is the characters that help make Ghostopolis an above average graphic novel. The tea obsessed werewolf is only part of the fun. Vaugner’s bug-eyed insect army are simply fantastic, in particular his top hat wearing enforcer who is bent on eating Garth and his nightmare horse. Gallows makes for a convincing hapless hero who has to imagine that he has an imagination in order to unleash his earthly powers in Ghostopolis. Just to complicate matters he’s also in love with a ghost, the beautiful Claire, who is a strong character in her own right. However it is Garth Hales who really makes Ghostopolis something special. He’s not just a typical teenager, but a complex character who has to cope with some serious issues; not just how to deal with freaky insect enforcers flying around in bee-copters.




Ghostopolis has such a strong narrative flow that by the time you get to the climax, in which the eerily slender Vaugner engages in an apocalyptic battle with Garth, you are totally hooked. Ghostopolis is a great blend of action, snappy dialogue and emotional pathos. Despite the blockbuster climax and the cast of freaky supernatural characters the ending of Ghostopolis is very human, which is a real strength. I’d love to see a sequel be published, but in the meantime apparently Hugh Jackman owns the rights for a movie version and if Tennapel has anything to do with its production then it will be brilliant.



Friday, 25 April 2014

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo - Nik Cohn (1967)






Nik Cohn is a British music journalist and author of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (1970), which is considered to be one is the first serious works of rock journalism and is also included in David Bowie’s list of his hundred favourite books. I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo is Cohn’s first published work and is the fantastic story of street urchin Johnny Angelo’s seduction by early rock ‘n’ roll. The novella is a wild fast paced allegory about the cultural impact of rock ‘n’ roll and in many ways perfectly captures the primal energy of rock music.

In the beginning Johnny Angelo is a typical unloved youth and from the age of four indulges in escapist behavior, initially by dressing up in a red suit and parading back and forth, like a showman, on top of a wall. The adults are outraged, of course, and so begins his flight from the grimy reality of post-war Britain. By the age of six Johnny is a petty thief, stealing watches from the markets, and before the age of ten he meets a mysterious William Burroughs type character called the Doctor (no, not that Doctor). The Doctor becomes a mentor, spinning fantastic stories whilst grinning through yellow teeth. The Doctor also possesses a honeypot of crystals that ‘makes flowers blossom’ in his brain. Like much of the symbolism throughout the novella, the Doctor and his honeypot of crystals is partly self evident and partly nebulous.

Their unlikely friendship comes across as a changing of the generational guard and it is significant that the Doctor remarks to Johnny ‘Doesn’t truth get tiresome? When lies are so much fun.’ Such advice gives credence to the notion that this novella did indeed influence David Bowie, who only five years later would invent himself as a rock star in the form of alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. The novella is a rock ‘n’ roll fantasia, complete with bikes revving endlessly in the streets, the flowering of youthful rebellion, hero worship and street-wise fashion. Significantly by the age of fifteen Johnny both leaves home and hears and sees through a scopitone Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti. His mind is suitably blown. 

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo manages to both capture the impact of early rock ‘n’ roll and to also predict its future. Johnny’s fuck you attitude, his gang of bikers and his posing finds Johnny rooted in the early rock ‘n’ roll moment, but his violently riotous live shows complete with wild animals (a metaphor for the energy of rock ‘n’ roll?) and freaky circus performers point toward the future of glam rock theatre and the nihilism of punk only nine years later. There’s an interview with Johnny that comes across like the infamous interviews Lou Reed gave in the 1970’s, full of casual deadpan distain. Johnny lives for the moment, the moment of danger and release that is the rock ’n’ roll concert. This is both his making, and true to rock ‘n’ roll mythos, his undoing as well.

I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo also tells the story of the establishment’s knee jerk reaction to rock ‘n’ roll and how that contributed to the fatalistic hubris of rock stardom. Hounded by the establishment and holed up with his followers, Johnny’s endgame is one of futility and egotism. With amazing prescience Johnny’s story ends at the age of 27; that mythic and tragic age that would later claim Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and then Kurt Cobain decades later. My copy of the novella was published in 1970, tempting me to think that perhaps Cohn tinkered with Johnny’s age for the reissue, because by the end of that year Hendrix, Joplin and Jones were all dead. Either way I’m Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo is a recommended read for anyone interested in the rock ‘n’roll mythos and the evolution of rock writing in general. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers (2013)






I have to admit that I find it hard to keep up with contemporary fiction. There are just too many quality older books out there waiting to be read. Dave Eggers, despite enjoying both critical and some commercial success, has until now completely passed me by. It has made me wonder whether this is a failing; is it important to read contemporary books, or is it fine to see if they endure and become an older book that you must read because its worth has been proven? Sometimes a novel’s importance and power can only be judged in hindsight from a future vantage point. Could The Circle become one of those books that future generations will venerate? Or will it succumb to its flaws and just become another novel tied to its historical context and fade away?

The Circle is the name of a technology corporation that is modeled on Facebook, Google and Silicon Valley. In fact in the novel The Circle has subsumed these companies and has become the biggest corporation of its type in the world. Eggers uses The Circle as a means to explore the possible dangers of when technology, power and prevailing cultural attitudes intersect in a way that can lead to the subversion of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and privacy. In some ways The Circle is a descendent of cyber-punk, with a corporation flexing more power than the government, set within a technologically dystopian context.

The Circle’s protagonist, Mae Holland, is a ‘typical’ twenty something who is extremely happy that she has left behind her humdrum job at a dead-end company when she is headhunted by her college friend Annie, who is both one of the ‘gang of 40’ in The Circle and close to the ‘three wise men’ who run the corporation with the kind of self-righteous glee displayed by those who think they know best. Mae readily goes along with all of the company’s demands and dubious plans for the future. On her first day at work she is gifted Circle technology and is asked to hand over her laptop. Mae hesitates, but not because she is worried about other people accessing her private information, but because she merely wants time to say goodbye. It is an obvious device, as it is only the first of many things that Mae will say goodbye to, not least her perspective and humanity.


Although she has a few bad experiences along the way Mae remains both idealistic and gullible, readily agreeing with everything The Circle suggests; which pushes the envelope of credibility when it comes to realistic character development. It is possible that Eggers has sacrificed credibility for the sake of thematic power. Unfortunately in this regard The Circle is excessively heavy-handed. As the novel progresses The Circle’s blatant disregard for basic human rights becomes increasingly outrageous as they progress from TruYou, a one stop cyber-portal, to SeeChange micro cameras that allow widespread surveillance, to the concept of total transparency and slogans such as “privacy is theft.” The descent into dystopia is unfettered and rapid, perhaps self-consciously attempting to outdo the likes of Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Thematic heavy-handedness is not the only way The Circle is flawed. The prose borders on the banal and character development is limited by the demands of the plot. Mae’s psychological state, as she reacts to The Circle’s demands, is often revealed in detail, however she is an unsympathetic character and has a superficial personality. The same can be said for Annie, whose personality seems subsumed by technology and the demands of the job. In contrast Mae’s parents are the novel’s most grounded characters, trying to cope with illness, unfair health insurance and then finally their daughter’s skewed perception. Such a contrast is no doubt a deliberate device used to highlight The Circle’s dehumanizing technology and its effect on younger generations. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, the artistic Mercer, is an obvious personification of those who inherently distrust the internet and big data. Eggers gives Mercer some hipster credibility, but ultimately he just comes across as a hollow mouthpiece for all that’s believed to be wrong about big data. If his character had been given a more rounded presence, then his endgame in the novel would have packed a bigger punch. Even so Eggers does manage to create some nervy chills from Mercer’s fate, but it is too little too late to improve on the lack of narrative tension that hampers most of the novel. 

There is an alternate way to view The Circle; one in which Eggers has deliberately written a novel that appeals to teenagers and twenty somethings. In particular those from that demographic who wouldn’t normally read a novel. Perhaps Eggers has commercially tailored The Circle to reach the widest possible audience because ultimately the themes he explores are real and important. In 1985 George Orwell’s 1984 was part of my year eleven curriculum and it impacted on me greatly. Less than three years later I walked through the city centre of Perth and saw the first CCTV cameras that were supposedly installed for the sake of public safety, and I couldn’t understand why people were not outraged by their presence. So perhaps The Circle is destined for better things? In the future it may be regarded as a key text and its flaws will be overlooked because the themes are so important. Perhaps now or in the future people will be inspired enough by The Circle’s dystopian themes to make a stand against big data’s erosion of privacy.

Note: The Circle gets an admirable rating, although it's not quite there, but nor is it mediocre - it's somewhere in-between, in my opinion anyway.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Couples - John Updike (1968)






The great John Updike died only five years ago. Such was his prolific nature that had he lived during that time he would have no doubt produced many short stories, essays, criticism, some poetry and a few novels just to round things off. He is greatly missed, but he will always be remembered for his brilliant quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels (plus a novella), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), the Henry Bech trilogy of novels and perhaps also Couples, which was hugely successful when first published. Couples is set during the early 1960’s and explores the relationships between a cluster of couples who party, work and play adulterous games in a fictional town called Tarbox. Updike ended up on the cover of Time due to its success, an honor that is rare for authors.

Couples is a thematic cousin to the Rabbit books, with Updike exploring how a range of characters deal with culturally changing times, most notably the waining of religious influence and the after-affects of the introduction of the pill. There’s a sizable ensemble of characters, with Dutch expat Piet Hanema acting as a focal point. Piet turned to religion after his parents were killed in a tragic car accident. Unlike some of the couples he regularly attends church on Sundays, but this does not stop him from pursuing carnal delights with at least three married women within the circle of couples. Updike applies his richly descriptive and dextrous prose to the sexual act, something that both outraged and enticed the readers of America at the time, although now Updike’s approach does seem almost quaint in comparison to the modern novel’s tendency to go right to the heart of the matter.


The first chapter, ‘Welcome to Tarbox,’ begins with Piet and his wife Angela discussing Ken and Foxy Whitman, the new couple in town. With this first long chapter Updike cleverly places the reader in the shoes of the Whitman’s by introducing many of the cast of characters with little in the way of backstory. Apart from Piet, whose backstory is established early on, you have to cope with Freddy Thorne’s Rabelaisian buffoonery, Janet Appleby’s neurotic personality and Roger Guerin’s ”hostile touch” as if, like the Whitman’s, you were awkwardly meeting them for the first time. Updike’s characters are a self conscious bunch; often neurotic, vain and desperate for distraction from their established lives. They are hermetic, trying desperately to find escape amongst themselves; a tendency that sends some of them to the therapist’s couch and others toward a great deal of trouble. Updike’s characters are well rounded, but their hollow ennui is palpable, making them a rather soulless bunch. By the novel’s end it’s hard to shrug off a feeling of ambivalence when it comes to caring what happens to them all.

Couples is a dense read, not because it is particularly complex, but due to Updike’s erudite and allusive style. The syntactic spell he weaves around the couples libidinous lifestyles is really something to admire. Updike is also brilliant at handling social scenes in which most characters have equal footing. The dialogue sparkles with wit and humour, particularly when rivals Piet and Freddy are sparring. Unfortunately the novel is at least one hundred pages too long and as a result reading Updike’s prose becomes like eating too much rich food, then regretting it later. By the time the novel resolves the central plot and ties up some loose ends, the joy of gorging has become diminished. Despite this problem Couples is an excellent read, although if you are new to Updike I’d begin with the Rabbit novels.

After I completed Couples I had a look around on the web to see what other people thought and my interest was piqued by a reviewer who wondered whether Couples was realistic. It is perhaps hard to say whether Updike’s tight knit group of couples living in a small town who indulge in sometimes witty repartee and adultery is particularly realistic, but ultimately such a question misses the point. All narratives are versions of reality, coloured by both the author’s rendering and the subjective filter of the reader’s own perceptions. To critique Updike for not being realistic is to critique every writer of fiction who has ever lived. In any case I rather admire Updike’s version of reality and will read many more of his novels to find out just what he made of it all.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Menace from Earth - Robert A. Heinlein (1959)






It has been an age since I have read Heinlein, in fact I think that the last one was Starman Jones (1953) and I borrowed it from my high school library way back in the 1980’s. Considering I read so many Arthur C Clarke and Asimov novels in my early years I have no idea why Heinlein was mostly ignored; after all he was considered to be in the same league, a triad known as the “big three” of science fiction writers. Heinlein gets another chance at this point because I thought he would be a great antidote to the grimness of The Watch Tower. The Menace from Earth is a collection of short stories from the 1940’s and 1950’s. Considering many current science fiction writers feel that technology has taken humanity well into the realm of science fiction (and they are right), reading old science fiction is an interesting exercise in terms of how ideas, attitudes and themes are either prescient or dated. 

The first story, The Year of the Jackpot, is all about mathematics, probability curves and the very fate of humanity. A character with the memorable name of Potiphar Breen notices that a number of strange occurrences are clustering and could mean bad news for humanity. It’s an interesting premise that is well executed, but what is of most significance is that it includes the first use of the word geek, which is used to describe a dead Russian scientist. Also it opens with a beautiful woman undressing on a city street who is, of course, rescued by the unusually named protagonist. 

By his Bootstraps is recognized as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time and that is a fair assumption considering it is a perfect distillation of the chicken or the egg time paradox. It’s brilliantly written and also features nubile scantily clad slave women thirty thousand years in the future who are totally willing to be subservient. Columbus is a four page joke at the expense of humankind’s shortsightedness. There are no scantily clad women in this one, even though it is typical science fiction magazine fodder. The Menace from Earth has a perfect science fiction title, but it turns out to be tale about a teenager’s romantic problems with her love interest who is attracted to a gorgeous woman from Earth. The fact that they all go flying with wings on their backs in a giant underground cavern on the Moon isn’t really enough to hide the fact that it is basically a stock standard teenage love story.

Things get better with Sky Lift, which tells the story of pilots on a mercy dash to the Proserpina space station out near Pluto in their extremely fast torch ships. This is quality hard science fiction told in a compelling way and you’ll never think about G-force in the same way again, or at least I won’t. There are no scantily clad women in this one either, although the main protagonist thinks about them for a while. Goldfish Bowl features two scientist who are investigating two giant pillars of water in the Pacific that seem to be connected to abductions of humans by mysterious balls of energy. This story is well executed, intelligent and though provoking, all without featuring beautiful women, although there are some naked men.

Project Nightmare is, like The Year of the Jackpot, set in the context of cold war tensions that could escalate given the right conditions. Heinlein places a number of characters with psychic powers in just such a situation with chilling results. Stories like this would have been quite frightening in the 1950’s, despite their fantastic elements. The final story, Water is for Washing, would have appealed in a macabre way to people living on America’s west coast, but ultimately it’s hard to define it as a science fiction story. Is a tale of survival during a natural disaster science fiction? Not by todays definitions perhaps.

The Menace from Earth is an interesting collection of short stories, some dated, but with others that still impress. They are all well written and Heinlein certainly knows how write a satisfying ending. He also knows how to take a story forward at the right moment and stimulate the reader’s urge to know what comes next and how it will end. One of the criticisms leveled at Heinlein is his apparent sexism, in particular during his later period. If you view these early stories from that position then yes, you can argue that the manner in which women are portrayed in these stories is problematic. Did the female character in The Year of the Jackpot really need to undress on a crowded street? Of all the things Bob Wilson could have encountered thirty thousand years into the future in By his Bootstraps, did it have to be scantily clad slave women? Perhaps not, but Heinlein would have certainly known his market in the late 1940’s and 1950’s - teenage boys.