Archive for 2008

December 31, 2008

Happy New Year, everyone. I’m not really into “parties” but I am into “counting books I’ve read”. Don’t lie, you are too. So in the spirit of my preferred end-of-year activity, I present to you the grand total for 2008: 62. Edit: It’s actually 63.

Anyway, I bet you beat me. I’m not that fast a reader. Come on, pony up your totals.

The List (in review order):

cloud atlas / david mitchell
the blind assassin / margaret atwood
white teeth / zadie smith
the stone key / isobelle carmody
what not to wear / trinny woodall & susannah constantine
the lost dog / michelle de kretser
under a glass bell / anais nin
the jane austen book club / karen joy fowler
the immoralist / andre gide trans. stanley appelbaum
musicophilia: tales of music and the brain / oliver sacks
illywhacker / peter carey
the other one / colette
the great gatsby / f. scott fitzgerald
the name of the rose / umberto eco
candide / voltaire
bel-ami / guy de maupassant
hunger / knut hamsun
mansfield park / jane austen
the best australian essays 2007
steppenwolf / hermann hesse
memoirs of hadrian / marguerite yourcenar
possession / a.s. byatt
intimacy / jean-paul sartre
eeeee eee eee / tao lin
persuasion / jane austen
the belgariad series / david eddings (5 books)
the unconsoled / kazuo ishiguro
fires / marguerite yourcenar
daphnis and chloe / longus
the elementary particles / michel houellebecq
a wizard of earthsea / ursula le guin
the castle / franz kafka
the talisman ring / georgette heyer
The Ruby in the Smoke / Philip Pullman
Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 / Anton Chekhov
The Chanters of Tremaris series / Kate Constable (2 books)
Terrier / Tamora Pierce
The Master and Margarita / Mikhail Bulgakov
The Taste of Lightning / Kate Constable
King Solomon’s Ring / Konrad Lorenz
Why the War was Wrong / edited by Raimond Gaita
Brisingr / Christopher Paolini
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline / George Saunders
The Tiger in the Well / Philip Pullman
CENSORED for reasons of good taste and integrity
If on a winter’s night a traveller / Italo Calvino
The Tin Princess / Philip Pullman
Naive.Super / Erlend Loe
Down and Out in London and Paris / George Orwell
Birds of America / Lorrie Moore
The Boat / Nam Le

The Consolations of Philosophy / Alain de Botton
The Tombs of Atuan / Ursula le Guin (review forthcoming)
In the Shadow of the Sun / Ryszard Kapuscinski (review forthcoming)
Housekeeping / Marilynne Robinson (review forthcoming)
Best Australian Stories 2007 / edited by Robert Drewe (review forthcoming)

When I read The Consolations of Philosophy for Bim Bam Book Club, I found out that this book makes some people mad. “Wait,” said a member of my other book club, “you’re not reading that for a philosophy book club, are you?” No, and I didn’t read The Boat for my pirate book club, either. Not to be too snide.

But I did find people’s reactions to this book quite as interesting as the book itself, which is a bit like a self-help book/beginner’s guide to philosophers. That includes my own reaction, which was happily benign/amused/interested until I found out that de Botton has started some kind of “school” of philosophy, where you pay money to have dinner and conversation with other enlightened individuals. Sounds a bit like that Monty Python sketch where the menu given to a couple at a restaurant has topics of conversation on it rather than food items. Then, I must admit, I was less benignly amused/interested. Books that exhort people to be more open to life and its cornucopia of blessings, generally: fine and dandy, even if I don’t want to read them all. But corporatising them? Not sure. Sounds like church.

In a nutshell, if you are a total philosophy newb, like I am, then this book is good because it will introduce you to the characters and words of six very interesting men. De Botton characterises each one as a useful source when one is in trouble (e.g. heartbroken, insecure, poor), which is a nice way of making things direct and simple. If you’re thinking “absurdly reductionist”, wait for the sentence after next. I found the way de Botton personalises the people behind the philosophy helpful because there are so many philosophers that it’s nice to have a friendly (or not very friendly, in the case of Nietzsche) face among the bazillion. But if you are at all “a serious philosopher” then I doubt this book will tell you anything you need to know, although you probably know that already, since you’re quite a know-it-all, aren’t you? Just kidding, I’m sure you’re nice.

Merry Christmas everyone. Hope you get books you want, or at least books you can re-gift to someone else. Here’s my gift to you (hand model is lovely Maddie):

Now I don’t know if you can see from the low megapixel count on my camera, but that is a book presented in a video case. For reals. Do I like it? No. Do I deplore it? Yes. Will I read a book whose parents decided their target market would really, really like to read a book that’s in a VHS case? Never in a month of days where I can eat just pudding and not put on weight. No no no no no.

For the bonus round, a close up:

It’s by Arthur Nersesian, and it’s called Suicide Casanova. Yes, you can thank me later. From Amazon:

Nersesian (Dogrun) starts this erotic thriller with a bang when rich, middle-aged lawyer Leslie Cauldwell accidentally strangles his wife during a bout of rough sex, but the novel degenerates into a long, labored account of Cauldwell’s obsessive relationship with a porn star named Sky Pacifica. The protagonist’s creepy intensity builds in the chapters immediately after the death (which takes place during his youth in New York City in the early ’80s), particularly when he hooks up with a gorgeous dominatrix named Cecilia and the lovers concoct an extortion scheme to blackmail a libidinous judge. But the tight, tense narrative unravels in a hurry when Nersesian turns his attention to Cauldwell’s relentless pursuit of Sky, and the story becomes downright listless when the author describes their brief but tumultuous midlife affair. Nersesian has some solid moments in which he nails the noir elements of his whacked-out story line, and his characters have more than enough erotic foibles and flaws for a gritty suspense story. But Cauldwell’s twisted neediness devolves into a series of rants about sex, aging and the marketing of beauty in the world of pornography. The subplot in which he pretends to be a fashion photographer and stalks Sky and her daughter proves to be little more than a lurid tangent. Nersesian has developed a cult following based on the underground success of his previous books, but this flaccid, erratic effort is forgettable despite some promising characterizations and plot lines.

Okay, I’ve changed my mind, no amount of jetlag or disease is going to stop me getting my hands on this book when I get home. ‘Erotic thriller’ and ‘bang’ in the same sentence, my literary nerves are all a-tingle. Thank you, Arthur Nersesian. Thank you very much.

December 22, 2008

Before the phoenix rises, it must burn. You could say it’s a sort of death the bird goes through, dipping and disintegrating through fire as it does. Nam Le’s The Boat deals intimately with the creep towards death, actual or figurative, and the possibility that something seemingly worthy of immortality might simply be a bird. Whether it’s the life of a story, tortured and guilty on a Vietnamese son’s typewriter, or the life of a mother who wants to die by the sea, Le writes experiences that glow and ignite with incandescent power. The violence of reality spends these lives without regret.

The heart of these stories is large, their scope undeniably ambitious. Hiroshima is beautifully textured with the wonder, vocabulary and privations of a child whose future, we are aware, is the stuff of historical atrocity. I was predisposed to admire and love Halflead Bay, the slow heart of the book, from which I’d heard Le read at MWF. Set in an Australian fishing town, this story, about familial friction and the lassitude of waiting for loss, thrums deeply and long with myriad complex notes. Yet a note on the execution: they are sophisticated and assiduous, but sometimes fall short of feeling lived in. Reading Tehran Calling, where the writing leans towards didactic, I felt like a horse whose rider forgot the reins, except for an occasional graceful whisk to the right or left. Though these stories had many, many virtues, to read them was sometimes to lean against glass and gaze upon the heroism of pain, without much hope of traversing the barrier.

Not so with the titular story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, which had my lungs extrude air with pure emotion (warning: not a great public transport book). The barriers between reader and story here attenuate to the extent that you can press your face as if through evaporated glass, so numinous does Le render catastrophe. This is a story that has had a lot of attention from reviewers and readers. The protagonist is an almost-Le; ‘Nam’, a young man of Vietnamese descent struggling with meter and typing in Iowa when his father arrives, wearing ‘black trousers and a wet, wrinkled parachute jacket that looked like it had just been pulled out of a washing machine.’ It’s a heartbreaking, yet incredibly formal treatment of story, its capacity to exploit and be trafficked, the accomplishment of it, its ownership.

I’ve kind of run out of time. I want to discuss the story Love and Honour a bit more — I think I’ll have to make it a separate post. Some last reflections: I was very attracted to this book, and I finished it, despite its occasional clunkiness and at times extravagant formality. I am still thinking about it and will continue to do so. I admire its scope and ambition. I admire its non-skittishness. I would recommend it above anything else I’ve read lately. I feel like I don’t quite understand it and why I’m so affected by it. I feel strangely unaffected by some of it. But, I don’t know, is the only value of a book to love it resoundingly? Isn’t it best to read a book that makes you think unremittingly?

It’s been so unforgivably long since I read this that I’m going to try and read it again next year, or at least some of the stories, or at least skim through and re-awaken some kind of memory or feeling. It’s not you, Lorrie, it’s me and my utter lack of accountability. Sorry! I do remember it was good, though. I love American short story collections.

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair and Eric Blair once lived on the streets. This is a true fact, and here is a true-ish book about it. You can have a look for free here. Down and Out in Paris and London is a clever mash-up of Orwell’s experiences and observations while slumming it in the restaurants of Paris and tramping the streets in London.

Since Orwell had family and friends who were well off in both cities, there’s nothing near the desperation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. What we get instead is an experimental, but pragmatic breakdown of the minutiae of poverty. And it’s not pretty; we’ve got bugs, sexual harassment, social ostracism and a neverending diet of bread and tea. But on the other hand, there is resourcefulness, mateship and Orwell designs a basic blueprint for a commune that would benefit the English poor, whose hardship Orwell concludes is essentially perpetuated by the state. A wonderful book that will make you think and squirm.

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December 11, 2008

Travel books update: I’m taking the Kapuscinski, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and John Banville’s The Sea. What do you think? Well, don’t say anything bad because there won’t be much I can do about it.

Edit: Also took Best Australian Short Stories 2007, wanted to read Lee Kofman’s contribution after meeting her last month, and re-read Nam Le’s Love and Honour story.