December 24, 2010

He's Making a List ...

One of the curiousities of this ridiculous challenge I've set for myself is that I (almost) never read new books. Going back through everything I've read this year I wasn't surprised to discover that I haven't cracked open a single book that was published in 2010. So my 'Best Books of 2010' list has a very personal flavour: these aren't books from 2010, they're books from my 2010. I hope that's okay ...

My best books of 2010 are:

10. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Fast, brutal, funny and thought-provoking ... all that good science fiction should be.

A lot of 'classic sci-fi' turns out to be kind of crap, because, well, those guys were churning out stuff to make a buck and had, for the most part, turned to sci-fi because they weren't capable of writing anything else. Not Bester. He can write. Gully Foyle, his protagonist, is bitter, obsessed, thoroughly unlikable and utterly magnetic. He starts out seeking revenge on those who left him stranded in space to die, and ends up a fully-fledged revolutionary fighting to overthrow the whole damn system. It's awesome.

9. Columbine by Dave Cullen

I went through a phase between the ages of about ten and thirteen when I read a lot of (pretty sensationalised) true crime books. Man, they don't make 'em like they used to. Cullen's book was ten years in the writing and astutely examines the Columbine high school shooting from every conceivable angle: from the tales of the victims and survivors to the ensuing media frenzy, to a painstaking reconstruction of the events themselves. All of this journalistic work circles around a horrifying vortex: the portrait he paints of the killers themselves, and their motivations. With access to huge amounts of documentation they left behind (notebooks, videos, etc.) that have hitherto been seen only by police, Cullen is able to offer some explanation for an event that, until I read this book, seemed utterly inexplicable. Not pleasant reading, but pretty amazing nonetheless.

8. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 Two sisters live with their feeble old uncle in a decaying mansion just outside a small town. Something terrible happened in the past and the girls, left entirely to their own devices, have constructed an elaborate make-believe mythology to rule over their every waking moment. The younger sister, Merricat, buries charms and totems around the property to ward off change, but when their cousin Charles arrives wanting to get into their safe, her delicate world crumbles in sublimely spooky fashion. An itty-bitty masterpiece, I have to thank my friend Hannah for putting me on to it.
7. The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

This is the third and final volume in Stephenson's 2500-page Baroque Cycle, and he saved the best for last. It's fiction on a staggering scale. Basically, the novels together (roughly) cover the years from 1650 to 1720 in Europe. Stephenson weaves together the earliest beginnings of modern scientific thought (Isaac Newton is a pivotal character), the beginnings of modern politics (religious views --- Catholic or Protestant? --- were slowly solidifying into political views --- Whig or Tory?), and the beginnings of modern finance (the great change when lumps of precious metals turned into standardised coins, which led to paper money, which led to stocks and bonds) ... in a nutshell, the template for our modern lives was being written in those times. And Stephenson jumbles all that amazing history together with a rip-snorting adventure story. With pirates. It's extraordinary.

6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In my Year 12 Literature class we studied Dickens' David Copperfield, and I hated it, and never finished it. So I was dreading reading Great Expectations ... it ended up on my shelves as one of those 'I really should read that one day ...' books, that I never thought I actually would read, and which could stay on my shelves and make me look smart until judgement day. Until I was foolish enough to take on this stupid challenge ... and I'm so glad I did. Because Great Expectations is wonderful. Dickens writes with such warmth, such wit, such sympathy. Pip, a young man who imagines himself above his station, is suddenly removed from that station and brought up as a 'gentleman'. What follows explores all the faultlines in traditional notions of class with a curious mixture of savagery and tact, that no writer of today could ever hope to ape. Some classics are over-rated. Not this one.

5. The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns

I've already sung the praises of this book on my blog. Check out my review here.

4. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Hee hee, I've already waxed lyrical about this one as well. Next years 'Best of' Blog will be so easy to write ... nothing but links!

3. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Anyone interested in stories should, at some point, read the original Brothers Grimm fairytales. They're dark, funny, archetypal, and hint at a centuries-old tradition of oral story-telling that is the skeleton of every (western) fiction ever written (I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on non-western story-telling traditions). What the Grimms are missing, however, is complex characterisations ... there's only so much nuance you can get into the stepmother, the woodcutter and the wicked witch. Lanagan, an Australian author, re-tells a Grimm fairytale but populates it with credible, complicated, real people. It's a startling imaginative feat, and what she's ended up with is rare and beautiful: an entire novel that glows with the tender simplicity of a fable. It's a dark book, about how to live with the knowledge that darkness exists, and that your children will one day know it too. A wondrous book. More of these, please, Australian publishers!

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

And here's the book Dickens would have written if not for those pesky social mores that meant he couldn't really tell it like it was. Crimson Petal is a Victorian novel in everything but sensibility: it's sprawling, it covers a range of social classes, some of its characters have humourously onomatopoeic names ... but it's honest. Early on, Faber recounts in exquisite, unflinching, horrifying detail just what Sugar, his prostitute heroine, has to do to keep herself from getting pregnant, and you know you're in for something out of the ordinary. It's difficult to define what's great about this book: the research into the reality of day-to-day Victorian lives is one thing, but it's the way it's presented that makes the book spectacular. Faber's writing treads the fine line of pastiche with consumate skill, and is never less than enthralling. I couldn't put the damn thing down, and Faber is close to making the very short list of writers of whom I will, before I die, read everything they've ever written. It's that good.

1. The Complete Short Stories by J.G. Ballard

The first spot on my 'writers-who-I'm-going-to-read-everything-of-before-I-die' list belongs to J.G. Ballard. He is my favourite author in the world, and reading this enormous collection (1200 pages long, spanning more than 35 years) is as near as little ol' agnostic me will ever come to reading a religious text. So many brilliant ideas! The man's imagination was frightening. At their best (Billenium, The Drowned Giant, The Ultimate City) these stories have as much to tell us about the world as any art I've ever come across. I can't think of any higher praise than that.

I should stress that Ballard is not for everyone, though. Start with his novel Crash ... if you like that tale of people who get sexual release from deliberately crashing their cars, then maybe he's for you.

And that was my year. Oh, the worst books I read? I hated Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker, it was everything that was bad about contemporary fantasy: turgidly written and ludicrously plotted. And, heresy of heresies, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray and simply cannot understand why it is so beloved. It's not witty, its characters are dull dull dull, and it criminally squanders a great concept. Please, if you're a fan, enlighten me: why?

Merry Christmas! JC

currently reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
books to go: 116

December 9, 2010

The Woman in the Dunes (#117)

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

What I said then:

"A bonkers-looking Japanese book about a man who gets taken hostage in a desert."

What I say now:

As a fan of all things Japanese and bonkers (in my estimation, 'bonkers' is high praise indeed), I was really looking forward to this, but it didn't quite live up to expectations.

An amateur entymologist, who remains unnamed for nearly the entire length of the book, travels to a tiny beach-side village to look for insects in the sand dunes. He notices that the village is arranged curiously: each house sits at the bottom of a deep hollow in the sand, almost as if the dunes are crashing over the village like waves. Having missed the last bus, he accepts the villagers' hospitality, climbing down a rope ladder to share a woman's house at the bottom of a sand-pit ... but when he wakes up, the ladder is gone. The sand is too steep to climb or dig out, and he finds himself a prisoner. The villagers force him to work, shovelling sand all night lest the house be buried, and the bulk of the plot is concerned with his attempts to escape and his curious relationship with the woman who's stuck down there with him.

This book swings wildly between being pretty great and pretty dull. Once the man is in the hole, it works best when it concentrates on being a micro-drama of man versus nature, as the man tries to figure out a way to escape with the extremely limited tools available to him. As Abe methodically takes his character through different stages of anger and depression and hysteria, and lets him try scheme after scheme to make his escape, the book is strangely exciting.

Unfortunately, it's marred by a couple of things. One is Abe's insistence on philosophising about the meaning of the man's predicament, and about the meaning of sand itself. I've never been a big fan of jamming non-fiction essay-type writing into the middle of a story (eg. the annoying section in 1984 where Winston Smith sits down and reads a book about how his world works), and either Abe or his translator does it without a whole lot of elegance. Supposedly it's a classic of existentialist literature, but for a brilliant example of a novel that contains philosophical themes without being weighed down by them, check out The Plague by Albert Camus, one of my very favourite books --- yes, I am a wanker, but at least I didn't say The Outsider.

There's also a large-ish section in the middle of the book where the character has a mental and physical breakdown and, for a time, the book stops making any sense at all.

Take those sections out and it's probably not long enough to call itself a novel, but it would have been a much better story. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
books to go: 116

December 7, 2010

'A Bachelor's Fridge' --- short story

I had another 20 Melbourne Writers meeting last night. The image/challenge for this month was simply: "The Fridge," which I found lovely and vague and really difficult to write about. The story I ended up with works as a kind of companion piece to 'The Piggery', my last 20mw piece, but this time showing everything from the point of view of one of the horrible guys.

A Bachelor's Fridge

Caitlin always did the cooking. I helped out a bit, cut up vegies or grated cheese or whatever, but she was the wizard in the kitchen. I’m not a misogynist or anything, I’m just hopeless. Left to my own devices I’ve still got the tastebuds of a twelve-year-old, and the skills to match. If I don’t eat out, or don’t have cash left to order in, I’ll usually end up having Doritos for dinner, or something like that. If I’m feeling really virtuous I might bung in a microwave pizza or something. That’s about as good as it gets.

When Marieke woke up this morning and checked out the fridge, she laughed her head off. There was nothing in there but a half-empty tub of Meadow Lea and some mayonnaise that’s about four years old. So we went out for breakfast instead.


I was at Toff last night with my mates Brendan and Phil. First Saturday night I’d gone out in a while. I was thinking of piking, but Phil knows me too well: he rocked up at my apartment with a bottle of Jameson’s and bullied me into getting ready. I was feeling a bit more up-for-it with a few shots in me.

The fucker even picked out my clothes for me, wouldn’t let me wear the nice black and purple shirt that Caitlin brought back from Holland for me. He said it made me look like a pussy. Then he played Xbox while I showered and shaved.

We got into the city about midnight. Normally a bunch of guys with no chicks would never get into Toff that late, but Brendan’s cousin Jenna came down with a couple of her friends and helped us past the bouncers. Once we were inside, Phil decided straight away that Jenna’s friends didn’t cut it, and dragged us away. ‘They’ll still be there at the end of the night,’ he said. ‘They can be the backup plan, for if we strike out.’

And that was all the action we got for about three hours. Phil tried to buy a drink for a cute little Asian chick, but she was the DJs girlfriend. Every girl that caught my eye had a boyfriend bag hanging from her arm. The only single chicks were the fucking eighteen-year-olds, wobbling about on the heels they don’t know how to wear yet, having three drinks and passing out. As Phil said, any one of them was probably a sure thing, but I’ve still got some standards.

‘What about that one?’ he asked, pointing to a redhead wearing a bad-fitting op-shop dress and a bright green cardigan.

‘I don’t want to go to jail,’ I replied. Just looking at her made me feel old. I’m not sure when it happened, but now I’m always one of the oldest people in the bars I go to. Next thing you know I’ll be having afternoon naps. Brendan and Phil’s master plan to make me feel better wasn’t exactly working.

Then the Germans arrived. Three of them for three of us, all of them skinny and blonde, it was perfect. In tatty denim skirts and t-shirts, they were obviously backpackers, and lining up for Cowboys the instant they arrived, they were obviously out for a good time.

It was hilarious, watching the attention of every unattached guy in the place zero in on them. Hell, even the boyfriends in the room were shooting glances at them. Elsa, the one with the long hair, leaned way over to tell the bartender a joke and the whole place stopped to stare at her arse. Course we did: it was a fucking good arse.

Now, there are times when having a mate like Phil is about as much fun as being shot out of a cannon into a net made of glass. But there are times when he’s a magician, and this was one of those times. ‘I’m not fussed, you guys pick your favourites,’ he said, then got up and strolled over to the laughing girls.

‘Is he … ?’ Brendan muttered under his breath. ‘Oh fuck, he is.’

Phil walked straight up to the long-haired one and pulled out his wallet and told her to put her money away. She looked him up and down. Phil’s not the best-looking bloke in the world, but he goes to the gym and that, and he dresses well, and he obviously passed the test. The girl smiled and laughed and leaned in to his ear to say something. Phil handed the bartender a fifty, and I doubt he got much change back from it.

Then he pointed us out to the girls. Brendan and me probably looked ridiculous, just gaping at them like slack-jawed morons. ‘You got a preference?’ Brendan said to me in an undertone as Phil herded the girls back to our table.

‘What? Nah, you choose,’ I said.

‘Leave it up to the gods then …’

I stood up and cajoled a chair away from the guys at the table next to us. They tried not to look jealous of our luck, but jesus, they failed miserably. I think they left pretty soon after that, with their tails between their legs.

Anyway, it’s way too loud in that kind of bar to have a group conversation, so the six of us just naturally turned into couples.

I was pretty happy: Marieke was the cutest of the three girls in my book. Smaller than the other two, who were total glamazons, Marieke had her hair cut short into a neat little bob, she was wearing glasses with thick black frames, and her t-shirt read ‘Weyland-Yutani Corp’ which got me on side straight away. She was stoked that I recognised it and we spent about half an hour debating which was better out of Alien and Aliens, and bitching about the crappy fourth one with Winona Ryder. And fuck me, we drank a lot. German girls can seriously party.

Phil pulled first. Of course. He escorted Elsa out to the balcony for a cigarette, even though he’s never smoked in his life, and they never came back. The four of us who were left all got texts at the same time. Phil’s message to me and Brendan read: “If we dont get a cab soon im fucking her in th street!!!” I dunno what Elsa wrote to her friends, but they fell off their chairs laughing at it.

Well. Honestly, the night gets hazy after that. I remember that the last girl, the one whose name I never caught, ended up sitting on Brendan’s lap. I remember that I finally got drunk enough to get up and dance, Marieke leading me by the hand. I don’t remember making a dick of myself on the dancefloor, but that’s probably what happened.

Then I lost Phil and his chick, then I was pashing Marieke in a dark booth, then we were pashing in a cab, then I was outside my apartment fumbling for my keys. Somewhere in there I must have said the right thing, but I don’t know what it was.

The sex was pretty good, what I remember of it. She didn’t mind being on top; some girls hate it, I don’t know why. She was real different to Caitlin. Rougher, in a weird way. Her bony arse kept slamming down on me, I thought maybe I’d be bruised in the morning. Caitlin liked a slow build, the foreplay and all that – she liked me to undress her. Marieke didn’t even bother taking her clothes off, she was still wearing her skirt and her bra through the whole thing. And everyone’s sex noises are different, obviously, but it was still weird hearing Marieke choofing like a marathon runner when I was so used to Caitlin’s cute little high-pitched yelps.

Still, different can be good. Y’know?


We didn’t go out for breakfast the next day. I lied about that.

I’d gotten used to sleeping in an empty bed, so the heat of her body woke me up earlier than I would’ve liked. I couldn’t get comfortable, and eventually my tossing and turning woke her up as well.

We made out a little bit, in a lazy kind of a way, but we both had shocking breath from the night before, so it wasn’t sexy like it should be. I couldn’t really suggest we both brush our teeth then hop back in bed, could I? Anyway, Marieke didn’t really seem like she was into it.

She got up first, tracking down her clothes and pulling them on roughly. I’d managed to get her skirt off her eventually, but only right before we went to sleep. So she got dressed again, and that was when she went looking for some food.

‘Jesus,’ she called from the kitchen. ‘This is the saddest fridge I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing in here.’

‘Yeah, sorry,’ I yelled back.

‘And … you don’t even have anything stuck to the outside …’

I needed a piss, so I rolled out of bed and into the bathroom.

‘… It’s terrible,’ she was saying through the door. ‘You have all these little silly magnets, but they’re not holding anything up. Did there ever used to be anything?’

Well, fuck. I just wanted her to shut up. I finished pissing, but I didn’t go back out there. I couldn’t. I sat down on the dunny and put my head in my hands. I don’t know how it started, or why, but all of a sudden I was crying. Fucking sobbing actually. For the first time in … in years.

‘Are you okay?’ she asked softly. She’d come right up to the bathroom door. ‘Is it about last night? Don’t be sad, that happens sometimes to every guy, I didn’t mind …’

I wasn’t even really listening to her by then. I was thinking about my fridge. About my sour milk and ancient mayonnaise. And about the empty fridge door. Caitlin had taken all the photos when she left, and for the first time I realised how much I missed them.

Story notes:
  • Writing this story was like birthing a rhinoceros. Anyone who knows me at all well knows that this whole 'nightclubs/booze/random sex' milieu is just not my thing. I got about halfway through the story and found it really difficult to continue, probably because A) I didn't want to reward my narrator's neanderthal-ness by letting him actually pick up a cute German, and B) because I'd always planned that I'd try and win some sympathy for him in the final section, but I personally hate him and his meathead mates so much that I didn't especially want to. That's why (to me, at any rate), the ending where he starts crying and stuff feels really tacked on. I just wanted to end the damn thing.
  • His fridge is modelled on my own. I don't stick shit to the outside of my fridge and, because I only tend to buy food as I need it, there are times when it gets pretty darn empty. Any other similarities between me and him are purely coincidental, I promise.
  • Oh, except I have been known to have Doritos for dinner, on nights when I'm feeling particularly hopeless. (Oh God, I've ... I've revealed too much ... *begins sobbing*) 
  • The issue of my machine-gun approach to profanity raised its head again at the meeting last night. My excuse, of course, is that it's written in the first-person. When I write in the third-person I don't go dropping F-bombs like Slim Pickens. For this guy, though, I'm just trying to keep it real. If anything, I overwrote him: "I'm not a misogynist ..." isn't really a thought I'd consider him capable of having, let alone expressing.
  • I was experimenting with having an unreliable narrator, where what you can read between the lines is just as important as what's actually written. However, given the limits of the short story form, I'd say that's likely to be more successful in a novel, where you've got the room to build the audience's trust in the narrator's voice, then have the revelations of his unreliability come in a more subtle way.
Well, I hope that hasn't ruined anybody's day!

Cheers, JC 

currently reading: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
books to go: 116

November 26, 2010

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (#118)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre
What I said then:

"The classic Cold War thriller." (side note --- Jesus, I need to go back and make these mini-descriptions more detailed. This is ridiculous.)

What I say now:

I'm not a massive fan of the crime/thriller genre these days. I went through a phase in my early to mid teens when I read a lot of books by guys (it was always guys) like John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth. Then on my sixteenth birthday my Mum gave me Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five and The Magus, and I've never really looked back. So it was with some trepidation that I came to le Carre's classic spy thriller, fearing that it'd be too 'me-at-fifteen,' and not enough 'me-now.'

Happily, I can report that those fears were (mostly) unfounded. Unless I'm remembering Archer and Forsyth unfairly, le Carre is operating on a different level. His writing is mostly sparse and clear, and only rarely overwrought - something a lot of thriller writers slip into. The plot is clever but never so clever that it becomes unclear or difficult to follow. The main character, Leamas, is a fascinating bundle of (seeming) contradictions: he spends most of the book convincingly acting a part, but le Carre is careful to leave a few clues to his true personality scattered throughout, making him pleasingly enigmatic.

There's an unfortunate thing that can happen when you come late as a reader to a seminal work. If you're aware of all the stuff that followed, that imitated the original hit, then a lot of the original work's power can be lost to you. When something becomes a cliche, it's unfair on the book or movie that spawned that cliche. It's happened to me with William Gibson's Neuromancer, Ridley Scott's Bladerunner and, unfortunately, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did succumb. The frisson of originality that it must once have had was lost. Luckily, it's a significantly better book than most of the things that came after it, so it still succeeds in its own right.

The other, more important, criticism that I'd make of it is a pretty familiar one. The mechanics of the conspiracy plot are smooth and logical and mesh perfectly ... but there's a love story attached. And the love story doesn't work at all. Towards the end of the book the couple's feelings for each other are what determines their actions, but when they sacrifice themselves for love it doesn't really fly, because the love story wasn't strong enough to earn the tough choices that they make. It's a common concern, I think, in genre fiction: everything else is cool, but then you've gotta have a girl, right? So she gets tacked on, and the romance is invariably the weakest link of the book (or movie). The moral of the story: no women! Or well-written women! Because if you're just gonna do it half-assed, that ain't gonna cut it.

Cheers, JC

about to read: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
books to go: 117

November 22, 2010

Weeds in the Garden of Words (#119)

Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge

What I said then: 

"A collection of essays about the English language, with particular attention to its troublesome elements."

What I say now:

Two non-fiction books in a row! What's happening to me?

Kate Burridge is a broadcaster on ABC radio who has (or possibly had) a show that focuses on language and the way we use it, and this book is a collection of neatened-up transcripts of her show. As such it's very bitsy, spending only a page or two on each topic, before dashing off to the next. Even though she's arranged them in logical order, and re-written them to smooth the transitions between topics, it's still a really odd, disjointed read. I found it was perfect for public transport, though, because it's perfect for reading in bite-sized chunks, and there was never that problem I have with a really engrossing book where I look up and find that I've unwittingly gone to the end of the tramline. No offense, Kew, but I'd never visit you otherwise.

As is always going to be the case with such a bitsy book, some sections were more interesting and enlightening than others. The main thing to take from the book is that English is such a chameleon, and is capable of being used so inventively, that notions of 'correctness' are pretty ridiculous ... so if you want to bitch me out for using the word 'bitsy' or the phrase 'bitch me out', then take a hike. As Burridge points out, if the printing press had been invented a hundred years earlier or a hundred years later, our language would be nigh-on unrecognisable. Of course some things have changed in the centuries since, but there's absolutely no rhyme or reason to what's fluid and what's static. We don't pronounce sue as shoo anymore, so why the hell did sugar stay shoogah? Both of the bolded pronunciations were looked down on back in the day, so why was one successfully repelled from the language, while the other worked its way up to being the accepted standard? Turns out, nobody really knows ... but it's kind of fun to think about. If you're a word geek. Like me.

The other thing I can take from this book is an increased annoyance at the complete lack of grammar in my education. I was never taught grammar. At all. What the fuck's up with that? That's a pretty serious gap in the schooling of a wannabe writer. I gleaned the ultra-basics from the few Year 7 Italian lessons I paid attention to --- what a noun is, what a verb is, stuff like that. I might have picked up a bit more, except Mick Arcuri was a fluent Italian speaker and let me copy his answers. But there's a whole lot of stuff that Burridge mentions in an off-hand fashion, assuming knowledge on the part of her readers, that I've never been taught. A friend who was studying teaching a while back mentioned once that grammar was making a (bit of a) comeback in the curriculum ... but because she was my age, she didn't know any of the stuff she was supposed to be teaching! Apparently there's about ten years worth of kids who just missed this stuff completely. So any grammatical errors in my blog are obviously not my fault ... at least I've got a (bit of an) excuse.

Cheers, JC

about to read: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre
books to go: 118

November 16, 2010

The Corner (#120)

The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns

What I said then:

"A year in the life of a Baltimore drug corner, as witnessed by the guys who went on to make The Wire."

What I say now: 

Okay, before I even start, let me just say openly that if you haven't seen The Wire then: A) You've missed out on the best TV show ever made, and B) You're probably going to feel a little excluded by most of this review. So go watch it (it's only about sixty hours of television) and meet me in the next paragraph.

Before they were television producers, David Simon was a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns was, first, a homicide detective, and later a teacher at an inner-city public high school. Simon wrote an earlier non-fiction book called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in which he spent a year with the Baltimore PD's homicide unit. The Corner is, in a way, a companion piece to the earlier work. In it, Simon and Burns spend a year on a drug corner (or, as they put it, an open-air drug market) at Monroe and Fayette streets in inner-city Baltimore, sharing the lives of some of the residents.

There's Fat Curt, an aging tout whose hands and feet are swollen due to medical complications of his drug addiction, and Ella Thompson, a woman who channels a very private pain into incessant community work and volunteering. And there's a family: Fran Boyd, a drug fiend and mother of two, her ex-partner Gary McCullough, striving to retain some semblance of dignity as his addiction strips him of everything else, and DeAndre, their teenage son, clumsily becoming a man amid the wreckage of his parents' lives. These are the core cast, but the book reaches its tentacles much deeper than just five people. Friends, brothers and sisters, parents and children, neighbours, fellow fiends (the author's term) - all have their story told, with equal weight given to everybody's struggle.

And that's the best thing about the book: it gives voice to those usually left voiceless and forgotten, reminding us that even people who can fit under a nice easy pejorative label - 'drug addicts' and 'drug dealers' in this case - are still people, deserving of as much time and attention as anybody else. It's pretty uncomfortable reading in a lot of ways (an Australian version might be 'a year in a detention centre' ...), but it's definitely worthwhile. 

The Wire is just about the toughest, grittiest television you'll ever watch. But here's the thing: as I was reading The Corner, I kept thinking 'Wow, they softened The Wire a lot from Baltimore's day-to-day reality.' As bad as The Wire makes parts of Baltimore look, it's kid-stuff compared to the portrait they paint in this book. The show throws its audience a couple of bones that the book can't: the character of Bubbles, for example, or the organised nature of the Barksdale and Stanfield crews, or the fact that those crews aren't made up almost entirely of drug fiends themselves.

But Simon and Burns don't just give us a devastating portrait of that one corner (one corner out of, they guess, between 100 and 120 drug markets in the city of Baltimore at the time, a city of about 700,000 people). They also examine the historical forces that have created the corners, giving a brief history of the post-war American underclass that is horrific in its cold logic. At no point, really, could anybody have done any different. Politicians and police and dealers alike, everybody's hands are neatly tied by circumstance, and they have been for the last fifty or so years. It's a sobering thought, and a sobering book.

In a recently-written epilogue, the authors recount an incident that occured a few years after the book's release: "A young councilman, sensing an opportunity, held up a copy of The Corner for television cameras at the corner of Monroe and Fayette and declared that, if elected, he would take back the drug corners and make the city safe again. He would fight the drug war they way it needed to be fought. It was pointed out to the ambitious councilman that the book he was holding was, in fact, an argument against drug prohibition, that it depicted an increasingly draconian legal system's inability to mitigate against human frailty and despair, against economic neglect and institutional racism, against a failed education system and the marginalization of America's urban population. The councilman conceded that he had not actually read the book, but that he was nonetheless the man for the job and indeed, he was twice elected mayor of Baltimore. He is now the governor of Maryland." 

Wire fans will recognise more than a hint of Carcetti in there. And so the same old ideas that have never worked get spun out again, and nothing ever changes. I know I've been going on a loving-and-recommending-everything kick recently, but this book is amazing as well. Sorry.


about to read: Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge
books to go: 119

November 10, 2010

My favourites: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

So The Corner is gonna take me a while (not because it's no good, just because it's huuuuge ... and because I may be re-reading HP7 before the movie comes out next week. Am I sad? You betcha!) and in the meantime I thought I'd fill the void by throwing up a blog or two about some of my all-time favourite books.

Douglas Coupland is one of my favourite authors in the world. His first novel was Generation X, which is actually where that phrase comes from, and in all his books he's got a really unique take on the world, to the point that I think he's the premier poet of contemporary urban lives. Yes, I am a wanker for writing that sentence ... but I think it's true. It's not hard to find beauty in nature, which is what a lot of (most?) novelists fall back on when they want to find beauty in the world. Coupland, a Canadian suburban boy, is a product of his time and place, and he seeks to find beauty in the un-idealised world that most of us (or, I should say, most of his readers) actually live in. Is there beauty to be found in neon McDonald's signs, or styrofoam packing peanuts, or Facebook, or microwave pizza boxes? Coupland thinks there is, and he tries as hard as he can to describe it. It's a strange way of looking at the world, but it's refreshing that somebody's out there trying. He's also funny as fuck, which helps.

Microserfs is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. For once I feel qualified to have that opinion, because I've read (nearly) everything he's ever done. (An admission: I'm missing a couple of non-fiction books he did called Polaroids from the Dead and Souvenir of Canada, and he wrote something in Japanese which has never been translated, and a new book called Player One has just hit stores which, if you've been paying attention to this blog at all, you'll know I'm not allowed to buy.)

What story there is is about a bunch of computer programmers working for Microsoft in the early nineties who end up junking the cult of Bill Gates and head down to the Silicon Valley to start their own company. What I love about the book is not the paper-thin plot, though, it's the way that each of these geeks has to settle the same spiritual question: how can I be me, yet still get along in the world.

Everybody, I don't care who they are, has some kind of disconnect between how they see themselves and how they behave in society. From telling your friend you love her new haircut when it actually sucks, to pretending you like your job, to pretending you like your partner, there's a subtle discord at the heart of everybody's life. We all have to compromise who we are to take our place as part of a broader society. I think it's a human thing: it's what lets us have society at all.

So all of the main characters in Microserfs---Dan and Karla and Todd and Susan and Bug Barbecue(!)---are massive geeks. Star Trek trivia litters their conversation. They eat Skittles for dinner, while coding for no overtime pay. And, at the beginning of the book, they all worship Bill Gates. But this leaves them as outsiders in the world, and every one of them is desperately lonely and desperate for meaning. Even as they're writing the computer programs that will rule the world, they're living their lives on the fringes. The drama of the book comes from their attempts to change their status-quo.

The ways they go about trying to integrate themselves into society start out pretty superficial (changing hairstyles/going to the gym/etc.) but turn into a very contemporary spiritual quest. It's a beautiful book about coming to terms with who you are, and hey, that's not something I've ever found easy myself, so it's a perfect fit.

I can imagine some people being put off by the techno-speak that litters the book, but I'm not a computer geek by any stretch of the imagination and it never bothered me. It's also a hilariously spot-on depiction of a very specific time and place, a time and place that is just on the borderland of my memory --- sample sentences: "Fax was like the email of the eighties," and "Speaking of the information superhighway, we have all given each other official permission to administer a beating to whoever uses that accursed term. We're so sick of it!" and "Bug accidentally used the term information superhighway, and so we were able to administer a beating." Did I mention yet that it's also funny as fuck? Because it is.

Highly, highly recommended.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns
books to go: 120

November 6, 2010

'Wistful Halloween' --- short story

Howdy folks.

So there's a second writing group that I'm involved in, called Rag 'n' Bone. RnB is a heck of a lot more informal than 20mw (my other group), and the focus is much more on just having a great time. We only meet every couple of months, writing to a theme, but usually it's about finding ways to make the theme as hilarious as possible.

Anyhoo, last week we were writing to the theme 'Whimsical Halloween', and were provided a bunch of photographs to provide inspiration. One of them was this:

I can't claim this as some brilliant work of literature. I just loved that photo, and wasn't interested in any of the 'spookier' images we had to work with. I also couldn't think of a whimsical story, so mine's more wistful. Hey, they both start with W and end with L. Anyway, enjoy! (Or don't. Whatever.)

Wistful Halloween

Pamela and Julian looked forward to Halloween more than anything. For weeks beforehand they practiced their strolling, promenading around the dining table until they’d worn a shiny path in the carpet.

‘What shall we dress up as, darling?’ Julian asked on the morning of the thirty-first.

‘Very droll, dear,’ Pamela answered. They had the same exchange every year.

All day they tried to pretend that they weren’t excited, that this night wasn’t the highlight of their unfortunate lives. Julian read a book, but found himself reading the same sentence over and over. Pamela did some knitting, but found herself constantly unravelling her work to begin again, until the wool was so badly crimped as to be unusable. Come dusk, however, they were both to be found in the parlour, peeping out through the blinds.


Pamela and Julian had moved to Smithton immediately after the accident. Since taking the house and arriving in the dead of night, they hadn’t shown themselves outside, out of embarrassment. Their only communication with the outside world came, ironically enough, via the telephone. Their neighbours had coming knocking in the first few days, but had of course received no answer.

It was common knowledge in the town that the house was occupied—Tommy Walton dropped off a dozen bags of groceries every Monday morning—but as to the identity of the occupants, the townsfolk had never had the slightest clue. The groceries sat on the step all day, but must have been taken in overnight, because they were always gone the next morning.

The town’s children made up lurid stories of murderers and ghosts, and always walked past on the other side of the street. The adults just grumbled about unneighbourliness.

Slowly the garden—and the house’s exterior—had grown shabby, then unkempt, and passed through dilapidated before settling into decrepitude. Ruin would come soon enough.

Now, whenever the townsfolk thought of the old house they tut-tutted, and they wondered. But they didn’t think of the house, or its occupants, very often any more.


‘You pick the number this year, dear, but do make it a small one. I’m getting itchy feet.’



Once it grew dark enough that the streetlights flickered to life, Pamela and Julian peered through slits in the blinds. It was a game they played: one of them picked the number and then they stood at the windows and counted. Only once seventeen costumed children had scurried past would they emerge from their house and join them.

Because Halloween was different. On Halloween Pamela and Julian could once again walk the streets without fear, could once again breathe fresh air and stretch their legs and stroll about unmolested. To any prying eyes they would seem merely another costumed pair, perhaps too old now to be begging for candy, but maybe on their way to a party somewhere. Yes, the pry-ers would think, yes, that must be it, on their way to a party … though their costumes are a bit odd, really, aren’t they? And didn’t I see somebody wearing the exact same thing last year?



‘And there’s another. Seventeen!’

‘Ooh, I like her Cinderella outfit.’

‘The glass slippers must be murder on her feet, poor darling.’

‘I’m sure they’re not actual glass.’

Julian took Pamela’s hand in his. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Good God yes,’ she answered. They crept into the hall, then to the front door. ‘It’s your turn to go first,’ Julian whispered.

‘No it’s not, you’re just frightened.’

‘Of course I am, but are you sure I didn’t go first last year?’


The accident had happened in the workshop. Pamela and Julian had owned and operated a small company making and restoring antique telephones. There were enough people out there who wanted something fashionably clunky that they were able to make a comfortable living. Until …

Julian had been screwing the steel baseplate into a replica of a Simmons A7 Model. It was a custom job, two-toned in red and white. ‘Like a pair of bowling shoes,’ he’d said at the time, shrugging. Pamela was testing her latest creation, a hook-and-cradle job that she’d spent two weeks piecing together from various spare parts.

‘I’d love to go dancing in a pair of bowling shoes,’ Pamela said. ‘It would be marvellous, sliding around so easily—’

It was at that moment that the workshop exploded.


The doctors were shocked that they both survived, but even more shocking was the curious nature of their deformities. Telephone parts had embedded themselves into each of their skulls, fusing with the bone in the heat of the fire. It was too risky to attempt to separate them from their phone-skulls: no, they would instead have to live like freaks. And so they moved towns, and once they reached Smithton, they never stirred  outdoors, hiding their audio-communication-equipment-related shame. The building they lived in may have looked like a house, but it was, in fact, a cage.

Except on Halloween.


Pamela edged the door open, all the while cursing Julian for a coward. The cool fall breeze rushed into the hall, stirring the dust and stirring something within the two shut-ins. A single fallen maple leaf, orange and yellow and turning brown at the edges, flew through the door. Pamela and Julian breathed deeply.

And then, after checking carefully that the coast was clear, they skipped down the path, out the creaking gate and onto the sidewalk. Giggling, Julian put out his elbow. Giddy, Pamela slipped her arm through the gap. And all night they walked together, and talked together, and were free.

Story notes:
  • It's very jump-about-in-time-y. I hope it's not confusing in terms of what's happening when.
  • It's very silly. I make no apologies for that. Of course it is. It's about people with telephones fused to their heads. You try writing a serious story about that photograph.
  • Even though Halloween is a distinctly American thing, it just felt right writing Pamela and Julian as kind of hoity-toity, even though they come across more English than anything else. It also doesn't really scan that they talk like that, but used to work as manual craftsmen (or women). All I can say about that is: meh, I don't care.
And that's really all I got. Peace out.

Cheers, JC

currently reading: The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns
books to go: 120

(Oh, a bit of housekeeping. There's been a bit of weirdness with how many hits this blog is getting, and where they're coming from. Like, for a period of about an hour I was suddenly really popular in Poland and Brazil. So if anyone notices any weirdness going on, or starts seeing weird links on their blogs, or whatever, just let me know. I'm probably being paranoid, but my last email account was telling my friends about a French electronics store a while back without my knowledge or consent. And if you're a genuine reader from Brazil or Poland or Turkey or Iran, please don't be offended!)