Monday, May 29, 2006


Sarsaparilla is a new group blog, "conceived as a kind of small-scaled and laid-back literary-arts-media forum, liberally infused with the most appealing attributes of the weblog form." In other words, it's about books, films and stuff like that. (You can see why I wasn't asked to write the general introduction.) The blog's line-up is very impressive, even if it does include the occasional shady character such as yours truly. (Yes, I am now involved in three blogs that I don't have time to write for.) So go, now! Read!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Books That Are Impossible To Illustrate

Some books must be impossible to illustrate. Imagine, for instance, being responsible for the illustrations in a book titled 'An Illustrated History of Nearly EVERYTHING.' You wouldn't know where to start.
Often, however, it is not the general nature of a title that would defeat you; it is the exact opposite. Imagine being asked to provide graphics for a book with so stiflingly dull a title as, say, 'The Income Tax Returns of 1989'. It would be like slow suicide. Elsewhere, MrLefty has noted the difficulties associated with illustrating the 'Law Institute Journal'.

The LIJ editor rings you with your assignment for this month. Joey Jo Jo, here's your assignment: I need a snappy illustration for the exciting May 2006 lead story. That story? "Targeting civil remedies - effect of consent judgments on third party contribution claims."

"Targeting civil re--"?! How the hell do you draw that? (There's a reason "effect of consent judgments on third party contribution claims" is not on a card in Pictionary.)
But it would be interesting to see other works of literature illustrated. A classic like Apuleius's The Golden Ass would be one thing, while the Greek fable Pandora's Box would be another thing altogether. The medieval carol I Have a Gentil Cock will probably never be published on its own, but there must have been several books published with the title Gay Paris. And how about being the cover artist charged with the task of illustrating Philip Roth's Kafka parody, The Breast:
Professor of comparative literature David Kepesh wakes up one day to discover himself in the hospital, having been transformed into a 155-pound female breast. The ensuing 89 pages depict his rationalization for such a sudden and drastic change, his trying to convince himself and others - his girlfriend, his father, his doctor, and a university mentor - that he has only gone insane, and his quest to satiate an ever-present, raging libido.
On the one hand, obscenity lies; on the other, obscurity: how to navigate your way between this artistic Scylla and Charybydis?
Still, consider what it would like to be asked to illustrate 'Lose Weight Through Great Sex with Celebrities the Elvis Way.' Any illustration of that would offend puritans, celebrities, and bulimics - a kind of unholy trinity. As a task, it would be marginally less easy than being asked to be the cover artist for 'The Best Fake Book Ever'. How do you illustrate a paradox? Either way, you'd end up looking like a liar.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Cover Me Badd*

Browsing in Reader's Feast the other day, I noticed that Penguin seem to have expanded their range of silver-spined modern classics. That, or Reader's Feast has broadened their ordering policy to include a handful of obscure titles, i.e. books not written by a member of the Amis family. Whatever the case, I grabbed a copy of Aharon Appelfeld's Baddenheim 1939 (been on my to-read list since forever) and noted the titles of a few others for future purchasing.

I also noted the arrival of Penguin's latest series of repackaged classics, Penguin Reds. The titles in the series are fairly predictable, although it's good to see the work of authors like Stefan Zweig and Eduard Morike getting a run (he says, pretending to have read them). At around $10, the books are cheap, compact, and I expect to pick up a few over the next few months.

The only down side is Penguin's choice of cover art. Not that I particularly like the sombre, drawing-room tone of Penguin's main classics range (all those black spines!), but the attempt to modernise the look, and presumably appeal to younger book buyers, has one fatal flaw: modern book art is mostly shit.

Take a look at what Penguin Reds deems suitable for Nabokov's sublime masterpiece:

Ugh. And possibly: snore. Certainly it is nothing compared to this:

Not exactly the kind of thing you'd want to be seen reading on the train, but it is certainly striking, and conveys something of the story's themes, as well as paying cheeky homage to the novel's lurid reputation. It is appropriate without being fusty, modern without being self-consciously flashy or pretentious.

Of course it all comes down to marketing. Check out this awful chick-lit edition of Sense and Sensibility:

Not sure which publisher has dressed this prime lamb up as spam, but whoever is responsible deserves, as Book World suggests, to "have two Bic Biros held with the pointy ends against their eyes and be forced to head-butt their own desk." And even that might be letting them off lightly.

*Other titles considered included: Cover Version; Got It Covered; Under The Covers; and The Aesthetics of Repackaged Classics, Or: Wow, That Cover is Shit!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Non-Review

I've just finished reading The Shape of Further Things, by Brian Aldiss. I was halfway through it before I realised I had no idea what he was talking about. It starts off as a discussion about the future before slipping into several chapters about dreams, which merge into a personal history of science fiction, concluding in a chat about the relevance of the moon landings. The book has themes, but I don't know whether it has a Theme. Its chapters all lead, one into the other, but I'm not sure whether they go anywhere; the book itself could be said to have the same structure as the conversation Aldiss records in Chapter 11, where he attends his first science-fiction convention:

I feel in with an English fan who was an old hand at these occasions, and we headed for the hotel together.
'You've got some pep pills?'
'No," I said.
'You'll need pep pills. Got to keep awake somehow. You'll get no sleep at a con, believe you me Kettering.'
'You surprise me.'
'at Kettering last year, nobody in the whole hotel got any sleep for the entire weekend beer.'
'What's that?'
'Beer. I never saw so much beer consumed in all my life. You like beer?'
'I can take it.'
'You'd better! Stick by me, you'll be all right!'
I lost him in the foyer of the hotel, but he caught me again as I was tiptoeing down from my room.
'There you are! It's going to be hell. Don't be3 nervous. are you feeling hungry talk?'
'Talk! We'll be talking all night! Ken Slater's got his stall up, Ron Bennett's checked in, and the fans are kneeling round Walt Willis already Ghod.'
'Walt Willis is Ghod?'
'You believe it too? That's what the fans say ...'

It's well-written and entertaining, but does it have a point? The book does have a conclusion, of sorts, but the only problem is that it bears very little relationship to what has gone before.

It's this sort of thing that alternately confounds and delights me about Aldiss. As an author, he can be both clumsy and sublime; unfortunately, his clumsiness and his sublimities seem to be intimately tied up with one another!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Absolutely Everything You Never Needed To Know About Modernism Part Two

W. B. Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death:
Horseman, pass by!

Yeat's poetry was an allegory of a metaphor of a symbol representing something that represented something else. I have no idea what he really wrote about, but I love the way he wrote about it:

I went out to the hazel-wood
Because a fire was in my head

Now, when you first read this, you think: a fire? In his head? Is this what happens when you put too many jalapeno peppers in with your baked beans? Ouch!
It's a bizarre metaphor, whatever it means, but the poem that follows has such a light turn of phrase, that you almost don't care.

Amongst other things, Yeats was an initiate into a occult society known then as 'The Golden Dawn', and known nowadays as 'weirdos'. They believed in reincarnation and possession and tarot cards and speaking in tongues and just about everything other thing possible to believe in. He got involved in some pretty strange activities; once he hypnotised his wife and got her to take 'dictation' from the spirits. He was so interested in the results that he made her write a whole book this way.

I'm not even sure if he was a modernist, since he prefeferred writing about the past to writing about the present. Though I guess his poem Easter, 1916 qualifies him as a modernist:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Just imagine him calling his wife a 'terrible beauty'. "Terrible beauty? Really, William! I don't know about you! Were you hit on the head by a tundish as a wee sprat? Terrible beauty! Hmmmph!"

Still, he was a great poet precisely because of his ability to write lines that were simultaneously incomprehensible and able to catch your breath:

Nor law nor duty made me fight;
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds;
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds.
I balanced all, brought all to mind:
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Whatever the fuck it means, it's beautiful.

Yeats also has had the distinction of meeting James Joyce. Joyce said, "You are too old for me to have any effect on you." Yeats later said of Joyce something like the following:

"That is the most arrogant and most talented young man I have ever met."

James Joyce
Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor bar none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle.

Joyce wrote a lot of words and not so many sentences. His earlier books (Dubliners, Exiles, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) have both in a more or less pleasant arrangement. In his later books (Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) the word-to-sentence-ratio dips wildly in favour of the words. Certainly there are enough sentences in the first chapter of Ulysses to make it readable. In the third chapter, Joyce starts writing in his stream-of-consciousness style - meaning that he puts down any random thought that comes into his head down, in a disordered manner, on the page; and passes it off as the random thoughts that come into his characters heads. Full stops and colons start scattering in wild profusion about the page, but they don't seem to divide any noticeable sentences. They're just there to provide a little variety. It gets to the point where you start wondering who thinks what, when, and how; and you realise you've started getting the characters all mixed up.

Then, just to mess you up a bit more, Joyce throws in a ridiculous amount of classical references which nobody - certainly not he himself - could understand.
By the last chapter, Joyce even does away with punctuation, and you get the thoughts of a character jumbled together in one great thing. I think about twenty pages into this he throws a full-stop down, I don't know.

Most of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are unreadable. I think I spent more tim reading the footnotes to Ulysses than the book itself; as a matter of fact, I'm sure of it. Because of the amount of references and allusions Joyce threw into these two books, the amount of footnotes that could be written are more or less infinite. (It's the theory of writing by reference - just like writing by weords, except it doesn't involve having to be as creative.)

Still, both books have their uses. Ulysses you can carry around and impress bookish, glass-wearing women with by saying you've read it. Finnegans Wake you can use as a pass into the highest echelons of academia; most academics haven't read it, and so they will always be impressed if you say you have.

(Next: W. H. Auden!)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Connivin' Miss Jaivin

I wish I hadn't borrowed a copy of The Age from my flatmate. Then, I wouldn't have seen this article by Leunig. The piece ends, "The audience explodes, the directly hurls me through a hole into the blazing light and there is St Peter, played by Andrew Denton, beaming and waiting to unmask me - a record of my life and a large coil of rope in his arms and the two pretty little chairs facing each other one-on-one: a picture of dignity and balance." It is chillingly captioned: "This is the first of an occasional coumn by Michael Leunig that will appear in A2".

I also wouldn't have seen an article by Linda Jaivin, portenously entitled, Inspiration from behind the wire.
"Why did comic writer Linda Jaivin turn her attention to asylum seekers?" asks the introduction. "Because of a simple desire to change the world."
My reaction to this: Linda Jaivin is a comic writer? Previously, I'd only heard of Jaivin as an erotic writer who for years had been doing minor book reviews on the pages of the Fairfax papers, and appearing occasionally on boring ABC Arts shows. Her ridiculous hair-dye and large glasses may have inspired a generation of women in older-middle-age who frequented libraries and bookshops, but that's all.
But, as it turns out, Jaivin not only 'sees' herself as a comic writer, she places herself amongst the best:

There is a long tradition of comic writers making big, important political statements. Remember Aristophanes? ... In Aristophanes hilarious Lysistrata, the woman of Athens go on a sex strike in order to force their men to stop the fighting. The men grow visibly - very visibly - frustrated and the women win.

Aside from the arrogance of this claim, Jaivin's interpretation of the play is stupidly simplistic. In Lysistrata the women become just as sexually frustrated as the men; and nobody desires to end the war because of any high minded Platonic ideals about a perfect society: one of Aristophanes main complaints about war is that it pushes the price of eels up. Jaivin therefore ignores some important context - that context being the rest of the play.
As far as I can see, Jaivin makes this interpretation of Aristophanes either because she is genuinely mistaken, or because she simply wants to align herself with a political ideology. (During the Iraq war, anti-war activists arranged for the play Lysistrata to be acted around the world as a 'protest' against the war; the plot of the play coincided nicely with the anti-war stereotype that 'men' cause war, and 'women' are the peacemakers. Just for once, I'd like to see anti-war activists admit that this stereotype was first popularised by an active member of the patriarchy, at the time when the word 'patriarchy' may have had meaning).

Apparently, Jaivin wants to 'change the world'. What her aims are, it's not certain. Possibly she wants to see an end to detention centres, though I'm not sure whether she wants to replace them with anything.
The same ambiguities emerge in The Age's review of Jaivin's book:

... it is the architects and tradesmen behind a policy that doesn't give a rats about the human beings confined by it - those who callously disregard the human rights of refugees - who appear un-Australian.

It's easy to make sniping judgments like this. But of course, if you favour a system of orderly immigration - and I'm sure most Age readers would - where people's claims to refugree status are assessed, then you will probably have to have some sort of detention system. It's either that, or letting people freely into Australia, and then keeping an eye on them through police/federal surveillance, regular check ups ... neither choice is pretty.
And inevitably, when refugee claims will have to be processed by a bureaucratic system. This always takes time; no government has ever been able to make a bureaucracy work quicker. So either way, 'orderly' immigration will sometimes be a long process.

Both Labor and Liberal support detention camps, which is why the Liberal Government are simply upholding the system of detention camps that Labor put in place. Personally, I couldn't care less if immigration is orderly or unorderley, and would be quite happy for us to be overwhelmed by Asians, overflowing with Arabs, overpopulated by British, or whoever else cares to come over here.
But when I see articles like this published in national newspapers, I have to hold my nose. There's a reason why the paper is pushing this line about Jaivin's book, and that reason is not journalistic integrity: it's simply trying to appeal to the 'Let's talk about how evil detention centres are in order to feel good about ourselves' crowd. Jaivin and her publisher help to set the tone by making the claim that Jaivin is a 'comic' writer and that she 'wants to change the world'. This series of reviews published in The Age are more about Jaivin's reputation than about the claims of asylum seekers and immigrants to Australian citizenship.
It stinks.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Book Blurbs

It’s pretty much a given that, these days, anybody who finds themselves purchasing a book on the poetic strength or authorship of its dustcover blurbs is not the sort of person you would trust to, say, drive a train, or babysit your children (unless your children are McCain pizza pockets, and you want them warmed up in the microwave and ready to eat when you stagger home drunk from the opera), or fall asleep at night without drowning in their own sputum.

Andre Mayer agrees, and has written a fine little article on the reckless art of book blurbing (Dave Eggers is in there, the little cunt). Book blurbs by other authors are nothing but literary back-scratching (Who knows when the upstart writer you condescendingly call “the next big thing” will actually become the next big thing, rendering his blurb on your new book more valuable than your blurb on their old book?), and even professional reviews (if such a thing existed) can be manipulated as easily as a little crippled girl with Down syndrome and pipe cleaners for limbs. Not that it matters, because these days you’ll have a hard time finding a negative review of a book in a newspaper – the literary cognoscenti, desperate to maintain (or indeed establish) relevance, prefer to hedge their bets by spoofing equally over every new release, because eventually something that they pretend to believe to be brilliant will achieve mass appeal, or, even rarer, will actually be brilliant.

Dustcover blurbs by other authors are a strange beast for another reason: they tacitly suggest that the blurber is a wiser authority, and a greater writer, than the blurbee. A big-name author giving the thumbs up to a small-time novice is something guaranteed to shift a few units, whereas a nobody telling you how fantastic something is is hardly going to inspire you to drop what you’re doing and make haste to the nearest A&R. Problem is, big-name authors become big-name authors because they have mass appeal, which, more often than not (the masses being what they are), means that they either already suck, or are going to start sucking with their next release. People who suck telling you to buy shit you don’t care about is a recipe for widespread stupefaction.

Anyway, the only reason I started in on this piece is because I wanted to try my hand at some book blurbs. Exactly like Thus Quote The Maven, More Fake Reviews, and More More Fake Reviews, except with sufficient distance between posts with identical conceits that hopefully you'll have forgotten about the others and think this clever and original.

Submit your own for fabulous prizes!

“A book so good that, were it a woman, you would have to observe her from a distance, perhaps hidden by some shrubbery, carefully memorising the usual route she takes home from work, plus other particulars, such as the code to her building, and then, one evening just as she is fresh and pink and scrubbed, emerging warm from the shower and preparing for bed, you leap from the cupboard, bind her hands and feet, and repeatedly rape her. And you can't keep something this wonderful to yourself, so you've told some buddies, and they're there too."

“An hallucinatory experience, with sentences so dazzling and unique, and a style so very fresh and warm and beautiful that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably shit your pants and not even notice it until hours later when your wife gets home and she screams at you OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT SMELL HAVE YOU SHIT YOURSELF AGAIN, YOU HORRID LITTLE PRICK?”

“Reading this book, I came so often, and so hard, that I paralysed myself, and my body was not discovered for weeks, having died from a combination of starvation and testicular infection, but with a blissful smile on my face, and a song in my heart.”

“This is the book that would have stopped Hitler.”

“A heady read, and lovely, and exciting, like the first time you broke into your father’s ‘secret chest’, and found his booze and kiddie porn.”