Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sigh. If only I hadn't started my literary blog at the most fucking boring time of the year. Then I wouldn't have to resort to linking to this.

The woman wot writ some book called the historiad likes these ten books real good yeah.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Age's A2 section yesterday featured "a bevy of better writers" giving their picks of the year. (The introduction to the article doesn't make it clear who these writers are "better" than, although the writer who penned the introduction itself stands out as a likely candidate. Bevy?) The piece is not yet online, but you can guess at which books are recommended. It is a predictable, and scarcely engaging, collection of responses. Most (but not all) of the "better writers" involved structure their responses around cliches - "soaring language", "profoundly disturbing", "compelling narrative" - demonstrating the general hollowness of newspaper lit writing. Then there are those who write sentences like, "Australia is a fascinating idean but demands autochthonous voices to come to anything", as does one Gregory Day. Those people ought to have their writing equipment confiscated.

***

I've given up on my "Christmas Books" list. Put it down to a lack of time and a lack of enthusiasm.

Friday, December 16, 2005

There are plenty of wacky novelty books on the shelves in time for Christmas, but Adam Jacot de Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo looks like one of the few that might retain interest for longer than it takes to say "Oh, you shouldn't have!"
It's brilliant in its simplicity, being nothing more than a collection of odd and interesting words from around the world, such as gorrero (Spanish, Central America) meaning a person who always allows others to pay, or pu'ukaula (Hawaiian) meaning to set up one's wife as a stake in gambling, or koro (Japanese) the hysterical belief that one's penis is shrinking into one's body.

Laura is giving away lifetime memberships to Library Thing. To enter, go to Larvatus Prodeo and comment about your favourite book, or tell your best library story over at The Valve.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas Books #2

John Brosnan, The Sky Lords (1988)

I loved sci-fi films as a teenager, and my favourite book on the genre was Australian critic and novelist John Brosnan's The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film. Brosnan wrote as both fan and critic, and (as far as I remember) his book was a highly entertaining mix of history and opinion, with plenty of excellent screen shots to get the nerd-juices pumping. Being that kind of kid, I grabbed everything I could of Brosnan's from the library, read it, then moved on to some other obsession.

Brosnan died earlier this year, and I confess to feeling a small shock at the news. I hadn't thought of him for years, but it is always strange when somebody we have spent time with as a reader dies. It got me thinking about Brosnan's novels - sub-Pratchett comic fantasy for the most part, although more inventive than most - and in particular his best book, The Sky Lords. Now, I was about fifteen when I read this book, and hardly the most discerning reader, but I remember it being a top notch sci-fi thriller. Whether I'd feel the same about it now is another thing, but it remains a fond reading memory. As far as the story is concerned, it's about a planet ruled by beings who cruise around in enormous airships. That's pretty much all you need to know to realise it's by-the-numbers sci-fi, yet Brosnan makes it work with a pacy narrative and an interesting heroine, the amazonian Jan. That said, I won't be hurrying out to find a copy: some books read in adolescence are better left there. Still, it is funny what sticks in your mind. Of all the books I read in those years, The Sky Lords, along with Dune, is probably the one I best remember.

One of the things I enjoy about Somerset Maugham's rather amateurish criticism is that his views are based upon the pragmatic - some would say philistine - principle that literature is, in essence, a form of entertainment or intellectual distraction. As somebody who attempts to think about literature, I have to take issue with this position, which recalls - or rather presages - the reductive absurdities of Professor John Carey. As an every day reader, however, I'm inclined to agree with Maugham. I do read to be entertained, although the quality of entertainment differs from book to book. Perhaps stimulation is a better word than entertainment. I read to be stimulated - look, I'll have to ask you to leave the room if you can't stop snickering - and I don't see anything wrong with that.

I raise this subject because I have been thinking about long books. I have always preferred short books, but it is only recently I have found myself avoiding long books altogether. I find myself incapable of reading them. At best, I get halfway through before giving up. Most of the time I don't even bother picking them up. The reasons for this new disdain for long books seem to be: 1) General lack of time; 2) Unwillingness to tolerate longuers; and 3) Need for variety. All reasonable excuses, but nonetheless it is a worrying development. Will I ever be able to read long books again? Or has my patience - not to mention my attention span - shrunk to the point where I can and will only read books under, say, 350 pages?

Maugham suggested that certain long novels from the nineteenth century, many of which were padded out in order to make up a certain number of monthly installments, might be abridged without damaging the essence of the work. Indeed, I often see second-hand copies of an abridged edition of Tom Jones from which Maugham himself culled about a third of the original novel. More recently it was announced that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be re-released in a shortened version. If that is successful, it is not hard to see abridgment becoming a trend, if not commonplace.

Despite my present distaste for long books, I'm not sure about abridgment. There's an unpleasant, Reader's Digest feel about the concept, and certainly, in the case of dead authors at least, a disrespect for the original work. Maugham nominated Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a prime candidate for the chop, but I suspect most Proust readers, including those, like me, who have yet to make it through the giant book, would be aghast at an abridged edition, and refuse to even consider it. Judging by the contemporary fiction I've recently read and read about, more can be done in the way of whittling down books before they are published. Once they are out there, and particularly if they've been out there for as long as Tom Jones, it's probably best to leave them alone.

None of this solves my problem with long books. Perhaps I needn't worry about it. After all, I can't be stuffed reading Elizabethan poetry or German philosophy and that doesn't bother me at all. The thing is, I am interested in, and absorbed by, novels in way that I am not in other forms of literature, art or thought. And although there is plenty to be gained from the small masterpieces of the form, there is just as much sitting there in big whopping tomes, waiting to be discovered. I hope that one day I'll have the time and enthusiasm to do so.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas Books #1

Everybody is doing year end best-of lists or recommending books for Christmas presents, so I guess I'd better join in before it's too late. Every day between now and Christmas I'm going to pluck a favourite book from the depths of my reading memory and write a bit about it. There will be no restrictions and no premeditation, just a random selection of literary goodness every day. Here's number one:

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928)

Do people still read Waugh? And if not, why not? This book - Waugh's first novel - was a delight to me when I first read it as a teenager, and it's even better now I'm old enough to understand it. In an episodic manner, Waugh tells of the adventures of one Paul Pennyfeather, who is thrown out of Oxford and ends up teaching at a particularly awful Welsh public school. Waugh surrounds him with a formidable collection of grotesques, and with a perfect straight face pens some of the most acidic - not to mention stylish - English prose going. The fact that Paul barely exists except as a series of reactions to other characters and events underscores the novel with a tragic determinism. Waugh's cynicism is bracing, his attack on hypocrisy unapologetic. Decline and Fall may be farce, but it is farce with soul, and that soul is pissed off and wielding claws.

Zoe Williams reckons people ought to chill the fuck out about Narnia:
The fact that Edmund has to labour under the guilt of being responsible for the Godhead's death (distilling the toxic psychological burden of most religions) has to be set against what would have happened to him had he misbehaved in a regular film. He would have been killed. In a cave. By a fire-breathing snake.

Underrated writers, as nominated by various lit-bloggers. Nobody asked me to contribute (probably because hardly anyone knows this blog exists), so here are my suggestions:
  • Ian McEwan - Never heard of him? Blame the snobbish, insular mainstream press who are determined to ignore this great writer while heaping praise on such middle-brow hacks as Thomas Bernhard and Eugene Ionesco.
  • Salman Rushdie - Has made some inroads into the literary scene with his fiction, but remains a reclusive figure. I'd really like to read what he thinks about, well, everything, but Rushdie is too shy to go around spouting opinions.
  • Bryce Courtney - A quiet achiever.
  • Matthew Reilly - An under-read young author whose work cuts to the very heart of the human condition.
  • James Joyce - When will he get the critical attention he deserves?

Adam 1.0 reviews Nigel Gohl's Around the World in 80 Babes:
The result of sitting down and reading it, or skimming heavily as the case may be, is something like being locked in a bucks party for three hours after the strippers have left and all that’s left behind is a room of testosterone fuelled sleazy males who would give their left testicle for a handjob...In case you haven’t worked it out yet this is a sordid affair of the lowest order.
Meanwhile, Adam 2.0 is locked in email combat with the author himself, who apparently doesn't like being called a cockhead:
It's my opinion that you're a cockhead, and I've given reasons to substantiate this claim. Unless you want to claim for discrimination for actually having a head that resembles a penis, we have no legal issue here. It's my opinion that you're a cockhead. That cockhead comment is published as fair comment, or opinion; therefore there is no legally discernible problem and no legal case to answer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Umberto Eco on Christmas and the "age of outrageous credulity":
I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

We're told that short story writing has developed into a cottage industry, with every man and his talking parrot taking creative writing classes down at the local TAFE. We're also told that despite this growth in the number of practitioners, few people are actually reading short stories on a regular basis. Could it be that increasing write-by-numbers adult education combined with a general unwillingness to engage with innovative fiction has led to a glut of tedious, affected, formulaic short stories that nobody wants to read?

On a completely unrelated note, Ellen Rodger has won the 2005 Age short story competition for her story "The reasons for us being here".
JASMINA, BABE, AND I THINK you can make someone fall in love through touch. We think the right touch is love

"I'm lonely," the man says.

"There's no shame in being lonely," I say. "Only the beautiful have difficulty admitting they're lonely."

What. Ever.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Ellis Sharp discusses Thom Gunn.

Who would have thought that Ben Elton's First World War mystery novel would turn out to be crap?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Malcolm Lowry, [Strange Type]

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.
The printer had it tavern, which seems better:
But herin lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that God's word was distraction,
Which to our strange type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Could it be that Woody Allen has finally made a decent film? The Independent's David Thomson thinks so. What are the chances of it getting a proper cinema release in Australia?

Meanwhile, read about a night of "nameless, seething passion" with the great man himself.

The Yossarian Book of the Year Awards:
Worst Book of the Year
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
I like Hornby’s non-fiction, I really do. He’s a great writer on inconsequential subjects – songs he likes, books he has read or failed to read – but his novels, apart from High Fidelity, leave me cold. A Long Way Down starts with four people meeting on a rooftop, preparing to commit suicide. By the end of the first few chapters I was screaming “Jump, you two-dimensional ba****ds, jump!” Sadly, they didn’t hear me.
Funny, but can we trust the opinion of someone who nominates Harry Thompson's This Thing of Darkness as Book of the Year?

(via Bookslut)

Peter Craven is not impressed by the ABC's My Favourite Movie:

Well, what we have to ask about the ABC's exercise in wrong-headed populism is: where's The Grapes of Wrath, where's Les Enfants du paradis? Where, for that matter, is Psycho or Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz?
Or Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Or Caddyshack 2? Clearly, democracy does not work.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Hands up who's sick to fucking death of Narnia? The absurd "controversy" over the film's religious content has been going for what feels like months, and the movie hasn't even opened yet. Polly Toynbee is the latest to over-react, her argument apparently being that Philip Pullman says it's bad, so by gum it must be. (As my Sterne - and, occasionally, stern - colleague Jon has pointed out, Pullman's problem seems to be less with religion than with subtext of any kind.)

There's an excellent response to Toynbee here. Whatever the film's pros and cons, I won't be going to see it. I'll be too busy working on my exposé of The Ten Commandments, a film that is nothing more than ill-disguised propaganda for Christianity and the false beard industry.

My to-read pile:

Bookslut has an interview with mystery novelist, Texas gubernatorial candidate and hat wearer Kinky Friedman.

The SMH's Michael McGirr reviews Anne Rice's take on Jebus, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.
So here we have the boy Jesus performing feats and wonders, a bit like a baby superman. Rice shares the same fate as the so-called apocryphal gospels. Too hard to believe.
Yeah, she should have stuck to the rational, believable style that is the hallmark of the canonical books.

Jeremy Mercer offers his top ten bookshops, including Paris's famous Shakespeare and Co, which has attracted "the likes of Henry Miller, Richard Wright, and William Burroughs". The day I visited, it seemed mostly to have attracted huffy American university students. I guess they only bring out the bohemian novelists on special occasions.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Intersecting Lines is a literary blog of a type yet to be determined. I envision plenty of stolen linkage, a few reviews, and not a small amount of swearing. The idea is to have a place where I can indulge in my obsession with all things bookish without irritating the highly-irritable readers of my other blog. It's hard to say if it will last longer than a week, but I guess we'll find out...