September 27, 2010

The Diary of a Young Girl (#123)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

What I said then:

The classic Holocaust memoir. (side note --- wow, detailed!)

What I say now:

Given the ridiculous restrictions I'm placing on myself, it's going to be pretty rare that I can follow a thread with my reading, letting one book lead me to the next. Usually I'll just be jumping all over the place. So I figured I'd take the chance to do a bit of 'themed' reading while it presented itself, and given how much I loved The Plot Against America I thought it'd be interesting to contrast it with this.

Presumably everybody knows this book. It's one of the most well-known, beloved books of the twentieth century (along with, I dunno, Lord of the Rings and To Kill a Mockingbird and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and American Psycho ... oh, just me?). Anne Frank got given a diary on her thirteenth birthday, the twelfth of June, 1942, in Amsterdam.  Twenty-four days later her family went into hiding in a 'secret annexe,' a suite of rooms hidden at the top of a warehouse. They were joined by another family and a mutual acquaintance, making eight people in all. With the help of about five or six Dutch men and women, they stayed there for more than two years, before being discovered, arrested, sent to concentration camps and, with the exception of Anne's father, killed in the very last months of the war. One of their helpers saved Anne's diary, which she'd been writing in all that time, and it was later published by her father.

As a document of one small drama within the greater unfolding drama of the war, the book is remarkable. In hiding, they listen to Churchill's speeches on the radio and discuss the pending invasion. They have scares when burglars break into the warehouse below them. They worry that the man who delivers potatoes knows they're there, then find out that he himself has been hiding Jews ... and that he's just been arrested. The small heroisms of those in hiding and their helpers deserve recognition, and this diary gives it to them.

Because of the book's  exalted place in our culture, I'd sort of expected Anne herself to be an angelic figure, a perfect girl. In fact, she was nothing of the sort: reading between the lines, she comes off as an ordinary, wilful teen who was occasionally obnoxious and annoying and, being the youngest person in the annexe, got on everybody's nerves. What makes the book really special is the way Anne grows in the two years in hiding, the way she begins to know and understand herself. The diary drastically shifts in tone, in keeping with Anne's changing moods, and the blunt reality of that reminds you that, hey, this was a real girl, and if she was angry when she sat down to write, she wrote angry. If she was dreamy, she wrote dreamy. If she was scared, she wrote scared.

It seems ridiculous to 'review' this book at all, really. It's great, its reputation is justified, and if you can get through the third-last diary entry --- which reads, in part: "It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It's utterly impossible for me build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more." --- if you can get through that without needing to pull out a hanky or a tissue or pretending you've just been chopping onions, then you're more hard-hearted than I.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
books to go: 122

September 23, 2010

'The Wizard's Wife' --- short story

So a friend of mine invited me to join a writer's group where, every month, one member of the group chooses an image and we all go off and write a story based around it. It seemed like a cool idea and, because I'm experimenting with writing screenplays at the moment, I thought it'd be good to keep my hand in by writing a bit of prose every now and then.

(The group calls itself 20 Melbourne Writers, which is apparently a jokey reference that I don't get, and there aren't nearly twenty of us anyway, so what the heck? Anyway, whatever.)

Last month's image came from a member of the group who's a doctor, who had a patient with gangreneous fingers ... or, as it was put to me: 'The man with the dying hands.' Here's what I came up with. Don't worry, it's really short.

The Wizard's Wife

Rosa watched from the shadows as Joff tottered towards the parapet and laid his rotting hands upon the stonework. Despite the tyrannies of time, she could still see hints of the laughing young man she had known all those years ago. His back, which had once been straight and proud, was now stooped. His shoulders, which had once been broad with the callow strength of youth, were now hunched weakly against the hot, reeking wind which tore down from the eastern mountains. But still, he was the same man.

Far below, at the tower’s base, the orcs spotted Joff and began to shriek and whoop, sending up their filthy, guttural curses. Joff glanced back at Rosa and rolled his eyes, the shadow of a grin tugging at one side of his mouth. At least, she thought he grinned: it may just have been the wind pulling at his beard. Then he bent back to the parapet and went to work.

His hands, splayed on the rough-cut stones, tensed as he muttered the incantation. Rosa could see the blackened, rotting tips of his fingers suddenly bloom with life, flakes of dead skin falling away to reveal fresh pink flesh underneath. For a few brief moments they were the hands that had hesitated to brush her cheek, in her father’s apple orchard, fifty years ago.

Beneath her feet, Rosa felt the tower’s stones grow warm.

Joff’s breathing became laboured. Despite the hot wind, he shivered beneath his thick robes. When the words were spoken, the spell of protection renewed, he collapsed to his knees.

Rosa rushed to his side, ignoring the taunts from below. Joff held up his hands: the magic done, his fingers were swiftly dying. Beginning at the tips, the skin dried and turned black. The new nails split and fell out, thin seams of blood emerging from the rotting cuticles. The knuckles grew swollen and gnarled, stiffening until they were useless. Watching the decay reach past the end of her husband’s fingers and for the first time spread onto his palms, tears welled in Rosa’s eyes, but she wouldn’t let them fall.

Re-using the previous day’s dirty bandages, she began to wrap Joff’s gangrenous, dying hands.

‘Rosa,’ Joff whispered. ‘Every day that spell grows harder, and the saying leaves me weaker. My magic is done. It’s leaving me. I’m so sorry.’

Rosa looked him square in the eye. ‘How long do we have?’

‘Five days. If that.’

Rosa nodded. ‘Long enough,’ she said.

She helped Joff to his feet and together they looked across the plain, past the horde of jeering orcs, past the eastern mountains, to the brilliant fire of the setting sun. The wind whipped at their long hair, twisting together his strands of white and hers of red. ‘We have been lucky, haven’t we?’ he asked. She answered by taking his feeble hands in hers and pressing them to her chest.

‘We are lucky still,’ she said.


When the spell finally broke and the orcs ransacked the tower, they found nobody.

But upon the balcony two curious statues faced each other. The elderly figures were brilliantly carved: the folds of their robes; the riven lines of their skin; the expressions in their eyes – all were captured with unearthly precision. Their hair was blown and tangled into impossibly fine tendrils of stone.

The two figures formed one single statue, really, joined for all eternity at their clasping hands, their hands which somehow didn’t match the rest of their withered bodies, their hands which appeared to still be in the first fresh flowering of youth.

See, I told you it was short. A few things about this story:
  • This is the first story I've ever written with orcs in it, I swear.
  • How much balls did I have to have to take a story with orcs in it and read it aloud in front of people I'd never met before? (side note: I am 99% certain I will not be invited back)
  • My friend told me that the stories should be "five or six hundred words", which I followed to the letter. I think my story ended up at 598 words total, and I worked like a bitch to chop it down that far.
  • When working with such a tight word limit, writing a genre story really helps. Instead of having to describe the bad guys, and try and come up with some reason why they're doing what they're doing, I can just call them 'orcs' and everybody gets it, straightaway. He's a wizard, right? So I figure everyone pretty much pictures Gandalf as soon as they hear that, so boom, no description necessary. GenreTown is like short-cut city.
  • The problem with writing genre is that you do things without thinking about them, because it's the 'done thing.' For example, the writing style in this story is extreeeeemely heavy on the adjectives, compared to what I normally do. It also includes shit like this: 'Despite the tyrannies of time ...' - what the fuck was I thinking there? Rosa doesn't say "We're still lucky," she says "We are lucky still." Why? You know, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon, so he actually had an understanding of archaic grammatical structures, and he selectively employed them to make his ancient characters seem ... well, ancient, I guess. But since then, everybody (including me, apparently) has just been ripping him off unthinkingly: 'Hey, I'm writing fantasy, how can I make it sound old-timey? I know, I'll have my characters speak in convoluted ways! Woo!'
  • Which is probably the trouble with any genre writing, there's always that tension between obeying the existing rules of your genre, and trying to do something original (I'm too fucking lazy to look it up, but I bet the words 'genre' and 'generic' have the same Greek or Latin root). You need to please genre fans by giving them what they expect, but you don't want to piss them off by giving them stuff they've read before. Tough gig. 

I'll stop now, before my bullet points are longer than the story itself! I'll probably have a crack at re-drafting this (and maybe stretching it out a bit) at some point, so any and all feedback would be appreciated.

Cheers, JC

currently reading: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
books to go: 123 

September 20, 2010

The Plot Against America (#124)

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

What I said then:

In the thirties, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh becomes a pro-Nazi President of America and a Jewish family struggle through the fraught times that follow.

What I say now:

I think this book is a masterpiece, and I recommend it without qualification to anybody.

Of all the atrocities that humankind has inflicted on itself, the Holocaust is still (and hopefully, will always be) the worst trauma in our collective memory. Yet as the event itself recedes into the past, it grows more defined, more entrenched in its own specific historical context. You can't think of the Holocaust without thinking of the time and place it occurred, and because we weren't present at that time and place, it can only be rendered as History. But as Roth writes: "The relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides."

Roth's genius is to remove the build-up to the Holocaust from its context, and place it somewhere else ... in his case, America; or, more specifically, the Jewish neighbourhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey. In Roth's book what was "unexpected in its own time" becomes unexpected, terrifying and new all over again to the reader, because it is new, a wholly imagined reality. It's that shock, that recognition that versions of the events described could happen anywhere, even here, even now, that gives The Plot Against America its dark power.

Roth documents with skill and precision the effect that an increasingly rabid, and public, Anti-Semitism has on one family - his. The book is narrated by 'Philip Roth', youngest son of an ordinary Jewish family, who is eight years old at the start of the book. The younger characters - little Phil, older brother Sandy, cousin Alvin - flail about, searching for meaning and reason as they grow up in a world suddenly devoid of those very things, their views shifting between extremes: Alvin goes to Canada to join the war in Europe, then gives up ideology in favour of hustling; Sandy acts as his family's own 'fifth-columnist,' before discovering girls and ceasing to care.

The family's parents, meanwhile, are beautiful portraits of an everyday, under-appreciated brand of heroism. Through every turn for the worse, through each mounting indignity, they find within themselves the steadfast ability to simply do what they believe to be right. It costs them a lot, nearly everything, and more than once they are temporarily brought low by the actions of the Nazi-sympathising government and by the betrayals that it triggers within their own extended family. But they are never defeated. In the last chapter, the mother of the family has an extended phone conversation with a lost and helpless boy (a former neighbour, not one of their sons) in which her quiet resolve, despite everything that has been thrown at her, reaches its summit.

I could go on and on (if I haven't already!), so I'll bring this to a halt now. Halfway through the book, Roth makes his major point explicit when he writes: " 'Because what's history?' [my father] asked rhetorically in his expansive dinnertime instructional mode. 'History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man - that'll be history too someday.' "

Once history is in books, we might forget that, and we shouldn't. By placing a familiar story in an unfamiliar context, Roth's remarkable novel doesn't let us.

(Whew! Sorry, not all of my reviews will be this heavy, I promise.)

Cheers, JC.

about to start: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
books to go: 123

September 13, 2010

City of Saints and Madmen (#125)

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer

What I said then: 

Linked short stories all set in the same fantastic city in which humans co-exist alongside a race of bloodthirsty mushrooms. Good or bad, I’ll cherish forever the chance to write the phrase 'bloodthirsty mushrooms.'

What I say now:

Yep, I was right, the bloodthirsty mushrooms are the best thing about the book. Seriously.

No matter what the residents of Ambergris try, fungi of every shape and colour spread throughout their streets and steal into their houses until suddenly, with no warning and no explanation, people go missing by their thousands, nothing left behind but swiftly drying bloodstains and swiftly growing toadstools. Even though the idea of killer mushrooms is fundamentally daft, Vandermeer is able to make them eerie and macabre, rather than comical, which I'd argue is the mark of a pretty talented writer.

As will always be the case with an anthology, some stories were stronger than others. The ones I tended to enjoy the most were those that delved in a straightforward fashion into moments in Ambergris' history ('The Early History of Ambergris', 'King Squid' and 'Learning to Leave the Flesh' were the highlights for me). When the city was merely the setting, rather than the subject, the stories dropped off in quality: Vandermeer is better with stones and mortar and dry history than he is with people and emotions. Though he'll take the trouble to exactly nail down all the details of some arcane ritual, he'd prefer to be obtuse about character actions and motivations.

Another beef is that the entire second half of the book, comprising about ten different stories, is presented as a set of 'Appendices' to the novella that precedes them, leading - not unreasonably, I don't think - to an expectation that all of those 'appendices' would reference and play off each other, combining to produce something more than the sum of their parts. I kept expecting the later stories to introduce new meaning to the earlier ones, and vice versa, but it never happened. As I mentioned, most of the stories were frustratingly vague and could have used a bit of clarification, so I was disappointed that it never came.

I can't fault his writing style, but because most of the stories (and characters) had no real emotional core, the book was difficult to enjoy.

Cheers, JC.

about to start: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
books to go: 124

September 10, 2010

A Hasty Confession

So, after all the hoopla of introducing myself and writing down the rules, I should probably confess to the wee little itty-bitty infractions that I've already been guilty of.

Just after I began this whole wacky project, Douglas Coupland released his latest novel, Generation A. Now, there are a few authors who are absolute heroes of mine, and before I die I'm going to read everything that they've ever written (Hmm ... idea for future blog post: discuss who these authors are, and why). And Douglas Coupland is absolutely one of them. So the instant the store had his new book, then I had to have it to. Even then, I might have stood strong, except one of my managers at The Avenue Bookstore, knowing I'm a Coupland fan, organised with our Random House rep to get me a free copy. She'd either forgotten about my pact, or else she's got a nasty streak I wasn't aware of.

It wasn't too much of a cheat, though: I was nearly at the end of a batch of ten books, so I just jumped the gun a bit on my new acquisition.

A far more egregious breach of the rules came more recently. Like, last week-type recently.

When I was a teenager I devoured the entire Tomorrow, When the War Began series. I was the right age, they hit me at the right time, and - for teen fiction - I thought they were pretty bloody good. I read a fair bit of bad teen fiction back in the day (though I suspect it's a section of the market that has matured a lot since then), so the good stuff was like a desert island to a drowning man.

With the movie coming out, and the trailer making it seem like it would be a steaming pile of shit (seriously, watch it online. It's ridiculous, right down to the whole 'guy diving away from an explosion in slow motion' cliche), I thought I should revisit the books before I saw it.

Not seeing it at all was, of course, never an option I remotely considered.

I'd intended only to read the first three books, which were always my favourites, but they blew me away all over again and I ended up scything through the whole series of seven in about five days. Whether it's that they really are great books or that I was reading through rose-tinted glasses, I couldn't say. What I can say is that it got me crying a couple of times, and I'm not much of a weeper. Books and movies can often get me blinking back tears, to the point that it's my fallback line when I want to suggest 'emotionality' in my writing ... and my writing partners mercilessly mock me for it. But to actually get those salty bastards out of my eyes and rolling down my cheeks? Not easy.

And the movie? Actually, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Most of the action was well-staged (a personal beef of mine is the utterly inept way that most contemporary action movies are filmed) and the actors did what they could to breathe life into the characters.

My main issue was that, when in doubt, it always reached for the easy answer, the cliche, the 'done' thing. A character who, in the books, smokes pot, writes poetry and is quiet and introspective gets turned by the movie into a comic-relief 'stoner', lighting up joints at inappropriate times and saying 'dude' a lot.

In the books they decide not to carry guns with them, in the hope that, if caught, they'll be incarcerated rather than executed. It makes perfect sense. In the movie, one guy's wandering around with a rocket launcher slung over his back. A fucking rocket launcher! A) Where'd he get it? B) Who taught him to use it? C) A fucking rocket launcher?

It's that kind of movie. I think Stuart Beattie, the writer-director, either didn't trust his actors enough to play any sort of complexity in their characters, or he didn't trust his audience to understand it. I know a film needs to be adapted from a book, and that of course some things will get lost along the way, but interesting characters should never have to be one of them.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
books to go: 125

The List

So here they all are. I was debating whether or not to put up a list (mainly because of how long it would take to type it up, my fingers are killing me) but I thought this way you, faithful readers, can give me advice about what I should read next. If, however, you can say with certainty that something on this list is utter crap, please keep it to yourself!

This list will shrink with time, I'll edit out the stuff I read as I finish them.

Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy

Jane Austen, Shorter Works

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

J.G. Ballard, Rushing to Paradise

J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights

Nicola Barker, Darkmans

James Blish, Cities in Flight

John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Steven Carroll, The Gift of Speed

Chris Cleave, The Other Hand

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Robert Coover, Pricksongs & Descants

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Michel Faber, The Fahrenheit Twins

Michel Faber, The Fire Gospel

Ian Fleming, James Bond Collection

Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion

L.R. Fredericks, Farundell

Helen Garner, Postcards from Surfers

William Golding, The Inheritors

William Golding, The Spire

Gunter Grass, The Danzig Trilogy

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Joseph Heller, Closing Time

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Homer, The Odyssey

Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan

Roy Jacobsen, The Burnt-out Town of Miracles

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Naomi Klein, No Logo

Christopher Koch, Out of Ireland

Christoper Kremmer, The Carpet Wars

Doris Lessing, Shikasta

Jonathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet

Andrew McGahan, Praise

Alister MacLeod, Island

Norman Mailer, The Fight

Javier Marias, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Christine Montross, Falling Into the Fire

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon

Haruki Murakami, Birthday Stories

David Nicholls, One Day

Anais Nin, Delta of Venus

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying

George Orwell, Coming Up For Air

Elliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

Tom Perotta, Little Children

Christopher Priest, Fugue for a Darkening Island

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Thomas Pynchon, V

Simon Reeve, One Day in September

Jose Saramago, Seeing

Dan Simmons, Hyperion

Peter Singer, One World

Michael Steen, The Lives of the Great Composers

Neal Stephenson, Zodiac

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Jacqueline Sussan, The Valley of the Dolls

Jean Teule, Eat Him If You Like

Marcel Theroux, Far North

Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Kate Worsley, She Rises

John Wyndham, Chocky

Arnold Zable, Jewels and Ashes

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

Yep, I'm pretty intimidated now.

Cheers, JC.