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!)