Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Age Reviews: Bullshit

Glancing back over the undulating seas of time, I can’t think of a single The Age book review that has ever given me the impetus to go out and buy whatever it is they happen to recommend. This being my thesis, I decided to take a little look at what The Age had on offer today, in order to categorically establish whether or not they know what the fuck they are doing..


The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis


Approximately ninety-two thousand, three hundred and twenty-seven books have been written about the Cold War, and a great many are priced below the $50 that publishers are asking for this effort. The interesting thing about the Cold War is that it was history that never happened: all of it was conjecture and doublethink, but we’ve been jawing about it ever since. Baby boomers too young to have lived through WWII, and too old to have given Vietnam any critical analysis outside of “let’s get those gook bastards!”, like to dredge up the Cold War from time to time to remind all subsequent generations that, really, we’ve got it pretty easy, because we have no idea what it’s like to live in real fear. Perhaps if the Cold War had escalated into anything more than the diplomatic equivalent of two clowns smacking their erect cocks together in a circus tent I might feasibly be interested, but as it stands, the whole thing was rubbish. Rating: D-



Hatchet Jobs by Dale Peck


This book came out in the middle of 2004. I didn’t care about it then, and I don’t care about it now. The authors it allegedly attacks – David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, James Joyce, etc. – were irrelevant when people were reading them, and are well past irrelevance now, resembling no more than hunks of cheap cheese that have been grated to a point that, should you wish to grate them further, you will be shredding your fingers in the process. The review concludes: “While it would be deliciously satisfying to accuse Peck of being naked himself, his clothes look remarkably well cut, if somewhat showy.” I was writing shit like that in Year 9. Rating: D



The Murrimbidgee Kid by Peter Yeldham


Apparently a “pot-boiler set in NSW during the Great Depression of the 1930s”. I’m sure the Depression was rough, but using it as the cornerstone for your literary excreta is no longer original, and the fawning praise by Bryce Courtenay only seals the deal: three months from now, after nobody has borrowed it from the local library, you’ll find a pristine copy of The Murrimbidgee Kid on the shelf at the Salvation Army reject shop, tucked between a handful of Clive Cussler softbacks and a stack of those editions of Michael Chrichton’s Prey that they were giving away for free with the newspaper a while ago. Rating: D-



Lies I Told About A Girl by Anson Cameron


I’d never heard of Anson Cameron before right now but, judging from his picture, he probably wanted to be a jockey until Jockey School told him he was too tall. His fourth book sounds pretty boring: something about a kid at boarding school in rural Victoria. I know it’s a load of shit because in the review there’s a “rich student who misses urban life and so carries around a jar of Manhattan air that he opens every now and again to revisit civilization”, but the book is set in 1975, when flights between Australia and America had to be booked six years in advance, and only took off every eight weeks at an approximate cost of $78,000, adjusted to present-day dollars. The chances of some kid winding up in a boarding school in the middle of Victoria, and just happening to have a jar of Manhattan air with him, are very slim indeed, and point to one inescapable conclusion: Anson Cameron is a wanker. Rating: D



The Good Life by Jay McInerney


Jay McInerney is like the half-aborted lovechild of Bret Eaton Ellis and Martin Amis, with two important differences: the first is that nobody reads Jay McInerney, and the second is they don’t read him because he sucks. New Yorkers attending parties and coming to grips with the tragedy of September 11, replete with “references to brand names and celebrities” (echoes of DeLillo)? Put me on the “Do Not Call” list, thanks, Bloomsbury. Rating: D



The History Of The Times: The Murdoch Years by Graham Stewart


Possibly this is a fascinating book, as I’ve always had an interest in the biographies of prestigious, globally-renowned newspapers, but at $60, which is nearly two slabs of beer, I guess we’ll never know. Rating: C



Henri Cartier-Bresson by Pierre Assouline


Another $60 stocking-stuffer. Henri Cartier-Bresson is a photojournalist, now dead, who used to take pictures of people like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Matisse, William Faulkner, and, uh, Coco Chanel. Great. Props to the reviewer for using the word “belletrist” (“a writer of belles lettres”), however. The teaser to the review reads: “Cartier-Bresson's name is indisputably associated with photojournalism.” In other words, nobody gives a shit about this book and the editor didn’t bother to read my copy. Rating: C-



Collected Poems For Children by Ted Hughes


I’m sorry to keep going on about cover prices, I really am, but I can think of better ways for a child to spend $39.95 than on a book of poetry by Ted Hughes. Pokemon cards and Passion Pop, for example. Rating: C



From Under A Leaky Roof by Phil Sparrow


A book about Afghan refugees in Australia. Sounds halfway decent but I’ll never read it, and I’ll wager that neither will you. Actually, it doesn’t sound so much like a book that somebody would “read”, exactly. Rather, it sounds like a book that somebody would list as a secondary source in their university essay. Rating: B-



There are some other books reviewed on the The Age website but already I’m bored with the whole exercise, and so are you. Ave atque vale!


At 9:14 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Good post and a good idea, too. We should make it a regular thing, although not just with the Age.

Just out of curiosity, what writers do you actually like? So far, on your own blog and on IL, you have mentioned Andrew McGahan (whose Last Drinks I picked up today for two bucks at Camberwell Market) and Morris Lurie's short stories, but you seem to be dismissive of pretty much everything else.

At 9:45 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Well...that's a good question. I'd have to answer with: William Hazlitt (my absolute favouriteist *ever*), Roald Dahl, Evelyn Waugh, John Gray (*not* the 'Mars vs. Venus' guy), J.G. Ballard, Paul Bowles, H.P. Lovecraft, Knut Hamsun, George Orwell, Jack Vance - whoever doesn't suck, really. There's certainly plenty more but that's just off me 'ead. Though it could probably be argued otherwise, I mainly appreciate these authors (or, in Hamsun's case, their excellent translators) because they have such a complete command of the language, and such an indefatigable and precise sense of the power of a good story, well-told, that their work never screams "Gaze upon me, for I am Writer!"

I read for three reasons, and prefer those writers who can satisfy all three desires. I read for pleasure, I read for edification, and, more as an adjunct than as a separate requirement, I read so that, in some tiny, insignificant way, my own writerly abilities may be improved, and the best way to do this is by reading authors who do not struggle, who are assured in their mastery, but who do not go to pains to display it to us. I do *not* read for fanciful turns of phrase, or for poetic imagery, or for complex "character portraits", or even for beautiful language, though, to be sure, every author I admire is more than capable of producing such stuff.

I have some difficulty in explaining it, but in my head it all fits together perfectly. And *that* is why I read those authors, so that one day I may be able to plainly, perhaps even poetically, express my reasons for reading them.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger JPW said...

But besides all of that, I never intentionally pick on The Age - it's just that the alternative isn't even worthy of my consideration. I'm glad you like the idea though, and will do my best to make it a regular thing. I see from all the comments that our (or, more accurately, your) regulars certainly enjoyed it!

At 8:49 AM, Blogger TimT said...

William Hazlitt ... I read a couple of essays of his for uni, and enjoyed them immensely. I enjoy a lot of good critical writing, actually - which I guess is why I continue reading reviews in The Age. Have you tried some of the other great essayists - Emerson, Lamb, or Thoreau, for instance? Australian poet A.D. Hope also wrote some brilliant (and piss funny) reviews of Patrick White and others.

Dahl is good and Waugh is frequently wonderful.

I couldn't give a definite reason why I read, other than that I always have; and that I enjoy reading. In a sense, my interests all lead, the first into the next: my interest in folk stories leads into an interest in science fiction; an interest in science fiction leads into an interest in comedy. An interest in music lead to an interest in poetry (and, more generally, in 'forms' and styles of literature); and that interest in poetry itself leads into an interest in wit and humour.

(/End self reflective passage)

I'd be interested to know, Tim, if your interest in comedy comes from something similar; or if you've always instinctively written that way.

In regards The Age reviews, they are generally awful. The Herald Sun has no real book reviews to speak of, but The Australian actually has a decent review section. Good writers like Frank Campbell, Peter Ryan, and Peter Coleman are frequent contributors.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Tim said...

The only book I have successfully read on a plane is a volume of Hazlitt. A great writer.

This kind of thing always sounds a bit wanky, but I think that the comedic mode comes naturally to me, and has done ever since primary school. As far as my "style" of humour goes, I've probably been more influenced by films, music and my friends than by writers, although I've constantly drawn upon (i.e. ripped off) P.J. O'Rourke, Terry Pratchett, Flann O'Brien, Joseph Heller and Woody Allen since my teenage years. Humour is such a sophisticated device, it's a shame that many writers don't consider it worthy of use, probably because they see it as precluding seriousness or depth, which is of course not necessarily the case.

Um, yeah, that did sound a bit wanky.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I agree with you, actually - although I wouldn't use the word 'sophisticated'.

Humour is one of those types of writing that people tend to look down on, like science fiction, fantasy, romance, romantic comedy ... the list goes on. Sure, some of the writing is terrible; but that's true of any type of writing.

At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'd be surprised if you read From under a leaky roof. It combines highly personal records of encounters with those refugees and asylum seekers, both in Aghanistan whre the author worked, and in Australia, and combines this with academic analysis. it is a good read.
Ian Williams, Perth WA


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